Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
10.03.2016 – 06.04.2016
My imagination of the town of Sharpeville is limited to the year of 1960. In the South African collective consciousness (particularly for those disconnected from the space), one may frame Sharpeville as functioning primarily as a memorial to violence, similar say, to those with no familial (or otherwise) connection to District 6. In this sense, Sharpeville occupies an epistemological space, almost seeming to transcend the spatial, tangible, functional understanding of place.
In his photographic and conversational explorations of contemporary Sharpeville, Jabulani Dhlamini focuses on the mundane, everyday home living which takes place simultaneous to habitual practices of memorial. Dhlamini sets up a very interesting parallel, moving between a conversation of land and the intangible occupiers of land: trauma, memory, and legacy. A documentary of large scale landscapes, buildings, and a more intimate collection of images of personal objects of memorial to the slain of Sharpeville, Dhlamini’s body of work does not impose, but describes in loose, murky, undulating terms, a story of ever-unfolding pain, that finds its site in South African past-present tensions.
Death pervades Dhlamini’s images, with the town’s police station (Old Police Station, Rooistena, Sharpeville) taking on an eerie presence, as we ponder the events of 1960, and inevitably remember what happened in Marikana a few short years ago. As a functional institution, no doubt ‘serving’ the people of Sharpeville today, we are forced to consider the relationship between Black people and the police. The medium of photography then becomes more complex, as Dhlamini presents us with a flattened-out image of a supposedly neutral institution that becomes incredibly resonant in the tensions and contradictions it implies through its supposed objectivity. These vague outlines of horror too tragic to visually articulate, draw attention to photography’s subjective nature, and simultaneously begin to play with these limitations. The picture of a police station in South Africa begins to represent everything that it does not show- violence, classism, racism, sexism, danger– and thus its capture becomes an act of epistemological subversion.
In addressing the notion of the image, and of façades, Nelson Mandela appears as a prominent figure throughout the show, speaking to a kind of death too; the ideological kind. His familiar smile surfaces throughout Sharpeville, in peeling murals on brick walls, on dusty old posters for the 1994 elections displayed in shop windows, or gathering dirt on the sidewalk, and his presence describes the slow (or quick) death of a Black hope and dream, contextualized by this broken but functioning space that serves as reminder of all that has not changed. By locating this past within the current present, the work situates itself snugly in contemporary discourse, conversing with all things resembling protest action and state resistance, and where we locate this in our collective memory.
Sharpeville residents share personal memories with Dhlamini, describing those loved and lost in the massacre using words, and through personal objects kept as memorial. The ongoing presence of deaths past seems to emphasise the lives themselves that were taken by looking at what exists in the aftermath. Meticulously composed photographs of these personal memorials- teacups used on the day of the massacre, ID books of the deceased, old shoes and gloves- are made resonant through their accompanying narratives.
These parallel explorations between event, fact, story-telling, and the everyday borrow from traditions of the documentary but choose to situate this historical trajectory in a manner that centres the human as the primary site of memorial, allowing space for a tradition of contemporary documentary photography that is occupied with the poetic landscape, rather than the physical one. The narratives that this creates speak not only of Sharpeville’s past and present, but of larger South Africa’s parallel- the stark contrast between rainbow nation rhetoric and the ongoing apartheid colonial situation. One might use these images to frame South Africa as a ‘Sharpeville’- a monument, or a traumatized landscape- whose memory holds her in a violent present.
In entering this conversation around monuments and memorials, Dhlamini begins to propose the gentle, everyday acts of remembering as the most poignant sites of monument-ness, an infinite ‘re-capture’ and reiteration of a past that cannot be understood in isolation, but rather should be seen as the direct informant of the present, in all its mundanity and seeming neutrality.
Dhlamini’s new historicist contemplation on the life of trauma- how it develops, climaxes and then seeps into the everyday could be said to be articulated through the introductory image to the work, entitled Dhlomo, Putswastena, Sharpeville. A young child is pictured, flying a kite in a desolate field under murky skies of Sharpeville. The kite hangs over the child, is held in their small hand, and will be reeled down and packed away later. It will not escape the hand, but neither will it escape the windy conditions, its trajectory balanced finely always between the hold of history and the unstoppable weathers of now.