Archive: Issue No. 81, May 2004

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Ranjith Kally

Ranjith Kally
Granny gives a bath, 1974
Gelatin Silver print

A timely celebration of Drum's Kally
by Robyn Sassen

Looking at nostalgic and political images from an era when one was not yet politically or historically alive becomes a visual exercise. Or does it? This question struck me overwhelmingly at Ranjith Kally's exhibition of work currently on at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank.

Spanning 58 years, this collection has never been seen collectively in a gallery context - and more's the pity. From intimate family images like Granny gives a bath (1974) and Ma cleaning lentils (1946) to political ones which offer moving record of Albert Luthuli, Alan Paton, Nelson Mandela's political histories, the work of this renowned Drum magazine photographer offers beautiful and poignant insight into our country's history.

But the photographs, some of which have become a little buckled and creased over the years, are more than a moving and meaningful glance at history, frozen by the camera. They tell stories. They call up the sounds of Tin Town and tinseltown. And quietly, each has the power to come to life for a viewer who may or may not have been there, in history, at the time when these images were made.

It is difficult to pinpoint the intellectual transition between art and document that these works and works like these must embrace. Is it the timing of the images, capturing political reality in its making? Is it the makeshift photographic facilities that Kally had access to as a freelancer, before he became professional, facilities that necessitated impeccable attention to technical development detail, because it was all manual? Is it the attention to tonal variety - all the way from flawless black to flawless white?

Or maybe it is the palpable personality of the photographer himself, so keenly involved in the making of the image that his presence is invisible, and the subject seems relaxed and oblivious of being recorded.

The exhibition is broadly divided into sections - some deal with more iconic figures posed almost statuesquely as they engage in their pedestrian habits in India, be it washing at the Ganges or saying grace before eating food. Others deal with the political and cultural issues that were hot enough in contemporary Johannesburg to be subjects for Kally, publishable in Drum.

And there's a diversity in approach too. The grainy images with simple sculptural detail vie for attention with the heavily detailed images in strong contrast and careful composition. Each image is finely focused and designed to be legible in terms of the tale it tells, be it one of illegal miscegenation or of a white trainer carrying the limp dead body of his black boxer through a crowd of incredulous black people.

The creative and curatorial initiative of Riason Naidoo, this show gives a very necessary platform and tribute to one of South Africa's neglected photographers. The images draw from within South Africa's Indian community and offer powerful record of apartheid as experienced by that community. Ultimately then, the show is eminently visually interesting to behold and historically valuable enough to be didactic.

Opening: April 22
Closing: May 12