Sarel Eloff - 'Street Photographs' at the Castle
by Aneleh Midgley
Student review written as part of the Practical Art Criticism course in the History of Art Honours Programme at UCT
Sarel Eloff's 'Street Photographs' are immediately reminiscent of the District Six photographs that were ubiquitous in the 1970s. At first glance I thought they dated from the same era, only to read on an information sheet that they were all taken in the last two years. The scenarios selected by the artist are the same ones found in the District Six genre: derelict buildings, broken-down cars, a bergie sleeping on the pavement, musicians doing their thing on a street corner. But visual clues hint at the time frame in which these were taken: contemporary graffiti, an Appletiser umbrella ...
Eloff presents a romanticised and sentimental look at Cape Town's inner city and some of the older surrounding suburbs. He is charmed by the creativity of the street buskers he photographs, as he says they remind him of similar subjects he encountered in Europe. And yet we know that these musicians do not dance and sing for the joys of life but to earn a few coins with which to buy their next meals. Eloff photographs areas where urban renewal has yet to take place; before the buildings are transformed into yuppy studio apartments by creative renovators, or the bulldozers move in as they did in District Six more than 30 years ago. These are stereotypical Cape Town scenes - one or two of the images even remind one of paintings by Gregoire Boonzaaier.
Is the photographer making a socio-political comment on the "shadow side" of the new South Africa? Nothing has changed in the everyday lives of these people; poverty still prevails, buildings crumble under the winter rains and old "jalopies" are kept running by the grace of God, or left to rust away quietly on a street corner or pavement. Eloff is fascinated by these old cars and trucks on the city streets - in Johannesburg, where he hails from, cars are safely locked away at night. A scene of subway pillars may allude to the ever-increasing number of street people who look for shelter here at night. It is possible to read political comment into this depiction of contemporary life: nothing has changed; it is as if the photographer has recaptured the past in black and white on the streets of Cape Town.
In their black wooden frames, the high-contrast photographs line the Castle walls like soldiers on parade. Seen together they create an altogether nostalgic look at Cape Town, which may just find them a place in the District Six Museum in time to come.