How to read post-apartheid photography
by Sean O'Toole
'Body and the Archive' is an important group show currently showcasing the work of a four prominent South African artists: Kay Hassan, Senzeni Marasela, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Hentie van der Merwe. The show is curated by Lauri Firstenberg, an art critic, editor, independent curator, and PhD candidate in the history of art and architecture at Harvard University. Presented at New York's prestigious not-for-profit Artists Space, the show borrows its title from a seminal study of nineteenth-century photographic documentation written by Allan Sekula, 'The Body and the Archive'.
In this essay Sekula, a respected photographer, writer, critic and Calarts teacher, examines the advent of photography in nineteenth century France, particularly as it relates to institutional categories of difference. "His overarching definition of the archive is rooted in a turn-of-the-century culture in which denotations of class and classification became a basis for photographic meaning," explains Firstenberg. "Sekula's inquiry pays particular attention to the ways in which the operations of the archive served to create typologies that became devices of regulatory control."
Allan Sekula himself describes the photographic portrait as the best example of the double system engendered by photography, "a system of representation capable of functioning both honorifically and repressively." As he further elaborates, "photographic portraiture began to perform a role no painted portrait could have performed in the same thorough and rigorous fashion. This role derived, not from any honorific portrait tradition, but from the imperatives of medical and anatomical illustration. Thus photography came to establish and delimit the terrain of the other, to define both the generalized look - the typology - and the contingent instance of deviance and social pathology."
This is an important insight for Firstenberg. "With the apparatus of the camera, categories from criminology to ethnography to bourgeois subjectivity were established that facilitated the cataloguing and surveying of bodies in ways that fuelled ideological investments in colonialism and nation-building. In contemporary terms, Sekula argues that the device of the archive within apartheid South Africa became 'the last physiognomical system of domination.' "
'Body and the Archive' examines the various ways in which the body is represented archivally in post-apartheid South African photography, through operations of archival appropriation and bodily obscuration. Kay Hassan's work Non -European Libraries combines found passport Polaroid negatives and Non-European library forms. To Firstenberg, "the partial fragmented portraits represent indistinct traces of the subject, only available in negative form, and are thereby unintelligible. Reverberating South Africa's passbook legacy, Hassan's series reflects upon identities collected, processed, traced, and inspected."
Alongside Hassan, Hentie van der Merwe showcases photographs of uniforms from the Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Static in a mercurial haze, these costumes of war (also described as archives of memory by critic Rory Bester) demonstrate a shift in van der Merwe's work, "from the appropriation of a material archive to the abstraction of the archive's role in the construction of national identity."
Senzeni Marasela is represented in the show by a black and white photographic triptych entitled Our Mother, while Zwelethu Mthethwa presents a striking series of new works. These works exclude human subjects from the frame, a shift in emphasis that occasioned this remark from Firstenberg: "Space now functions as surrogate for his subject." Firstenberg is of the belief that Mthethwa's new 'décor studies' effectively "reinvent the terms of photographic portraiture within South Africa by reversing colonial models of representation", a moot argument in my own opinion.
This curatorial interpretation aside, 'Body and the Archive' represents a critical marker for South African artists exhibiting abroad. After the excitement of 'Documenta 11', the diffusion of South African art internationally will to a large extent depend upon the success (or not) of conceptually rigorous shows such as this. It will be interesting to chart the show's critical reception.
For an insightful interview with Artists Space curator Lauri Firstenberg follow the link below. (Thanks to Lab71, who kindly consented to this link to their informative site.)
January 18 - February 22, 2003
38 Greene Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10013
(Due to an overwhelming number of emails sent to Artists Space, please allow 1-2 weeks for a response. Thank you for your patience.)
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11-6 p.m Admission is free.