Friday, 29 July 2011

David Goldblatt

Lavatories, Frankfurt Resettlement Camp, Ciskei, 12th July 1983

July is the last month of the exhibition of photographs by David Goldblatt - ‘Lifetimes: Under Apartheid’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you haven’t seen it you must before it closes or at least visit the Prints and Drawings Study Room where we have access to incredible photographic documentation of the social and physical landscape of South Africa. We can see around 70 of Goldblatt’s photographs made between 1960 and the mid 1980s during the apartheid era in South Africa as well as a selection of his books and correspondence detailing the journey the photographs made into the V&A collection in the 1980s. In a letter to Mark Haworth-Booth, former senior curator at the V&A, Goldblatt describes his reasons for gifting 115 of his photographs to the museum due to the worsening political situation in South Africa and the works’ “vulnerability to destruction … in the face of the awful things happening here”. The permanency of the museum and its historic public accessibility guided Goldblatt’s choice and I feel the safety and importance of the room as I explore the work, openly displayed and accessible for everyone to see and learn from.

Begin on the left as you enter and see a selection of photographs titled ‘Some Afrikaners Photographed’ which come from Goldblatt’s first photographic essay, made between 1961 and 1968 and published later in book form under the same title. Reading the images, I find them immediately absorbing, made in black and white and displayed in two coloured sections. Even their size is readable and I value them immediately for their clarity and opportunity to see such documents close up. I learn about Afrikaners as a complex community, descending from Dutch and German settlers and how they formed the main political force in the National Party. Along with other ‘white’ communities they were the beneficiaries of apartheid. Some of the images are striking as remarkably close observations of individuals and specific events while others read more ambiguously, making me want to know more about the individuals photographed and their role in society at the time.

A commando escorting the Prime Minister and leader of the National Party,
Hendrick Verwoerd and his wife Betsy, to the party’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
De Wildt, Transvaal, 31st Oct 1964

Flip du Toit on the stoep (porch) of his farm workshop at Abjaterskop,
Marico Bushveld, Transvaal, Dec 1964

Continuing around the room, I look at images from his 1998 ‘South Africa: The Structure of Things Then’. I find this one of the most powerful sections in the exhibition for the way the photographs describe the impact of social segregation and inequality not only with reference to the experiences of individuals and communities but as manifested in the landscape and within built structures. Look at ‘Lavatories’ a photograph showing us two landscapes in juxtaposition with each other. In the foreground are open fields, in the background the edge of the Frankfurt resettlement camp, where in 1983 the people of Mgwali were informed by the government they would have to move to. Some 45 kilometres away from their ancestral home, the camp had no houses and no land for cultivation or grazing, only a few wooden shelters. Despite considerable state persuasion and intimidation, the Mgwali community powerfully resisted relocation and in 1986 the removal scheme was closed. The landscape today still echoes the states original intention, with the 1500 long drop lavatories still dotting the veld. In dialogue with ‘The Structure of Things Then’ is the section ‘The Transported of Kwandebele’ where we can see in contrast how the forced relocation of black South Africans to semi independent ‘homelands’ caused many to have to travel huge distances to find work. One photograph shows people leaving for work at 2.45 am, waiting for the first bus of the day at Mathysloop. Another photograph in the same section shows people returning home at 7.00pm from Pretoria.

2.45 am, The first bus of the day pulls in at Mathysloop on the Boekenhouthoek –
Marabastad route from Kwandebele to Pretoria

Pulling out of Pretoria, the 7.00pm bus from Marabastad to Waterval in Kwandebele

Goldblatt carefully collected the stories attached to the places depicted in ‘The Structure of Things Then’ and the labels in this section are abridged versions of his book captions. This is a trait of Goldblatt’s work, where images, showing individuals in the context of their histories are accompanied by explanatory text by the artist. The recent exhibition, ‘Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography’ also shown at the V&A included recent work by the photographer from ‘Tradesmen’ showing artisans photographed at their workplaces or making use of the environment to advertise their trades. Significantly, Goldblatt addresses how tradesmen would not have been able to advertise their work in this way during apartheid; in fact black tradesmen were not allowed to carry out their trades in ‘white’ areas though some did. In ‘Ex-Offenders’, all of the sites where the photographs were taken are linked to people’s life stories – all photographs were taken at the scene of a crime and in one case an arrest. The photographs are accompanied by explanatory text and sometimes include voices of individuals affected by their actions.

Pert Mogale’s advert at the corner of 11 Avenue and 3 Street Lower Houghton,
Johannesburgh, 20th November 1999

After seeing the exhibition, I wrote to David Goldblatt and asked him the following questions about his work:

LG: Before seeing your photographs, I was familiar with South Africa’s political history but your work acted as an education for me about the experiences of individuals and communities living under the apartheid era. Do you intend your photographs to have an educative function? Your use of documentary photography certainly encourages this but your collection of images in the form of books also suggests we should read, absorb, and learn from what we see.

DG: No, I don’t regard myself as an educator. I see my work as that of a critical observer.

LG: The recent exhibition, ‘Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography’ also shown at the V&A featured a section of your new work. The display of interviews and explanatory text describing the identity of individuals and their experiences accompanying the photographs differed from the work of other contemporary photographers in the exhibition. How important do you feel it is to companion your images with words?

DG: I regard captions as an integral part of my work. The photographs don’t come out of and don’t exist in a vacuum. I am not making ‘art’. I comment on real things, real situations and real people and if words will clarify, provoke and extend the experience of looking at the photographs, I will use them.

LG: Did I read somewhere that you said you are more inspired by novels than you are by visual artists? A sense of narrative is obvious in your work, in the way you show your photographs in books and group them together in subjects as such, but the way you take a photo also suggests to me that we are on the edge of knowing much bigger stories about people and what they experienced. Could you tell me a little bit about your influences?

DG: I have said that I have been more influenced by South African writers than by South African photographers – with the exception of Sam Haskins. Sam was a very generous man from whom I learnt a great deal about the use of photographs in books.  South African writers – Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, Karel Schoeman, Herman Charles Bosman, Marlene van Niekerk, Ivan Vladislavic, Barney Simon, Lionel Abrahams, Njabulo Ndebele – have in various ways been strong influences in my photography of this country. More generally, in photography, I have been particularly sensitive to the work of Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Eugene Atget, Helen Levitt and Bruce Davidson.

LG: How do you usually take your photographs? Do you carry your camera with you daily and take images spontaneously or do you choose your subjects more slowly?

DG: I don’t carry a camera with me unless I am working, that is, unless I am in search of photographs relating to a particular feeling or idea or quest or enquiry.

LG: I’m interested in the position you would have placed yourself in as a photographer in South Africa in this period, taking photographs such as ‘Lawrence Matjee after his assault and detention from the police’ in 1985. You must have put yourself in a dangerous position taking such images. Did the South African authorities know you were making work like this, which explains your reasons for gifting the collection to the V&A?

DG: Anyone who was seriously engaged in photography relating to our society during the years of Apartheid would have been the subject of interest to the security police. The extent and activity of that interest would have depended on just what you photographed, how you went about it and what you did with the photographs. I think I was a source of puzzlement to the police. My work tended to be oblique rather than confrontational. They occasionally questioned me but I was left pretty much alone. When I published the picture of Lawrence Matjee during the time of the Apatheid regime I was careful to phrase the caption in such a way that there was no direct accusation of police brutality.

Giving the collection of work to the V&A did not directly relate to that photograph or any particular photographs but rather to the fear that state paranoia might become so acute and vicious that there would be blanket prohibitions on the dissemination of information and photographs.

LG: The photograph, ‘Lavartories’ showing the Frankfurt Resettlement Camp particularly struck me. What has happened to places like this now in South Africa?

DG: Look at the picture on page 61 of intersections intersected. In some cases, like the holes of the longdrops at Frankfurt, they have become strange monuments to the insanity of that time and hazards to small children and people who don’t watch where they walk.

LG: What kind of work are you making now and when and where can we see your next images?

DG: I am working on ‘Ex-offenders at the scene of crime’ and I am extending the work I’ve done on The Land. The former is on show in Venice until November.  

Lawrence Matjee after his assault and detention from the police, 1985

All images C/O David Goldblatt and the Goodman Gallery

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Giovanni Bellini


Lily, laurel, daisies and english ivy - these are just some
of the plants identifiable in one of my favourite Renaissance paintings featuring landscape, 'St Francis in Ecstasy' by Giovanni Bellini. It seems fitting to talk about this painting in June as we welcome in the sun, summer sets in and we spend more time outdoors. The subject of this work concerns St Francis, the Franciscan friar who received the stimata on La Verna in 1224. Representations of the saint frequently show him in close connection with the natural world, often in prayer or contemplation in humble, landscape settings. In this painting we see him on a hill top, in a landscape infused with mood and rich in landscape detail. The sun is bright, shining through the laurel tree and the St appears to be welcoming it in, open armed, in a state of ecstasy or revelation. In response to this the landscape around him seems to be waking up, alive with life, light and colour.

Image c/o:

Bellini’s treatment of landscape in the St Francis is a subject of much debate. Painted in 1480 it is traditionally believed to show St Francis on La Verna receiving the stigmata. If so, this is a very unusual representation of the subject because traditional forms associated with the scene have been omitted. The legend says St Francis saw ‘a vision of God, a man like a seraph having wings, standing over him with hands out stretched and feet joined together, fixed to a cross" but Bellini includes none of these symbols and concentrates instead on the subject of the landscape. He has painted St Francis’s wounds with minimal emphasis – is the saint infact receiving the stigmata from the light of the laurel tree so there is no need for an image of the cross?

Alternatively, it is suggested that Bellini could be showing St Francis in the act of composing his famous Cantile to the Sun. This seems possible, consisdering the saint is turned in the direction of one of the two light sources in the painting, and is open mouthed, as if he is singing. The cantile itself celebrates the smallest grasses and flowers in nature, understanding spiritual experience in wholly natural terms - “for sister our mother earth who maintains and governs us and puts forth different fruits and coloured flowers and grasses”. This would account for the significant role landscape takes in the painting as well as Bellini's painting technique which is incredibly precise so that each individual flower and leaf is painted with equal importance, glowing with sharp radiance.

The botantical accuracy of the plants painted is astonishing as is Bellini's choice of species which symbolically relate to the idea of waking and rebirth. Along the green bank is a scattering of white flowers, which may be bindweed, known for opening with the morning light and withering in a single day. We see signs of regrowth in a figtree, on the ground by the saints right foot and slightly higher up another fig tree is shown in a advanced state of growth as if in dialogue with the first image. Bellini's landscape also includes animals - a donkey, a rabbit, a heron, which are shown in spiritual relationship with the saint. A rabbit pokes his head out of his burrow to see the sun and a donkey, believed to have taken St Francis up to La Verna, stands in the distance in silent conpanionship. We also see a heron, a solitary bird, which could also be associated with the hermit saint, who similarly is alone in the landscape in companionship with nature.

But what I find most intriguing about this painting is the idea that Bellini may be describing a real landscape, that he may infact have visited the La Verna site and made sketches of the landscape there, particularly the morphology of rocks which he transfered to the painted panel.  Did he also identify flora and fauna in the area, recorded them in someway and included them in the finished piece? Recent investigations by the Metropolitan Museum of Art into the preparation of the painting using infrared reflectography reveal considerable underdrawing beneath the paintings surface. This suggests that the accurate represenation of forms in landscape was part of Bellini's daily practice, that he may have made a considerable number of sketches, perhaps in part or through a series of trips, which he put together to form the finished piece.

This August I am travelling to the La Verna site to explore the landscape there. I want to makes sketches, collect plants and take photographs of the area, finding rocks, flora and fauna particular to that place which may establish a parallel with Bellini's composition and the visual practices he may have engaged in. I can't wait to see what I find!