Archive: Issue No. 87, November 2004

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Body, image, sex - comfort zones for gals
by Robyn Sassen

Lori Waselchuk and Kathryn Smith offer wall texts to explain the modus operandi and issues pertinent to 'Are you comfortable?', a photographic exhibition by 13 young women photographers, students at the Market Photography Workshop. Each writer offers a level of rhetoric, which collectively evoke Hillel's biblical injunction: 'If I am not for myself, who is? If not now, when?'

'Is everybody comfortable?' Waselchuk asks. She draws attention to the circumstances of the young women whose work was on show at the Bensusan Museum of Photography last month. Some are already garnering strong critical reputations in the field, others are newcomers. All are bravely treading where no black woman has tread before. And this makes for discomfort. Healthily so, because new ground is being broken. Waselchuk's question is homely, evoking the traditional concerns of a traditional woman.

Smith wants to know 'How soon is now?' She provides insights into the male-dominance of the medium of photography and the different circumstances which gave documentary photography such currency in South Africa. She concludes, 'Nothing is sacred here... Comfort zones are anathema to self-conscious, critical perspectives of where and how we choose to position ourselves.'

Both arguments in these astutely written texts almost become philosophical. They are not descriptive of the works on show, but provide viewers with an inroad. It may be argued though, that the words are not necessary, and the profound strength of the images say more.

In a photograph by Alexia Webster, there is an intense rectangle of red. It's the focal point of the bisected composition. This light reflected from an open door offsets the silhouette of a figure. Like other works by Webster Bar Maid/Beer Factory juxtaposes similar geographies, but different economies. This disparity in Webster's works creates a tension, bringing the image to critical and aesthetic life.

The exhibition fluctuates between the socio-political and the aesthetic, but it presents narratives which are as difficult as they are socially taboo. This is the exhibition's edge, and represents its contemporary social value for our world.

So, while powerful images like Refiloe Motsapi's (2004) Untitled, a portrait of the photographer's grandmother at her humble boudoir, resplendent in her nudity, contest Smith's claim that nothing is sacred, many different values are at play. Here we see something private and intimate being handled with dignity. Here we see a level of sacredness being attributed to the previously profane. This is enhanced by the gentle light on the generous form.

Smith's meaning, though, is that nothing is considered unrepresentable. Zanele Muholi deals with the difficulties of lesbianism in a world coloured not only by racism, but also homophobia.

Her images present a moving and difficult insight into a woman who needs to downplay her womanhood in order to retain a level of sexual relevance. A woman in a darkened room binds her breasts, another is cross-dressed. We see scars on a woman's thigh and a woman conflicted by hormonal currents.

These women - the photographers and the subjects - are viscerally confronting body image, sexuality and self in ways that have never been seen before on an art platform in South Africa. They're not pornographic or titillating. They're hard-edged and documentary, yet they are aesthetically sophisticated, and demonstrate an articulate grasp of the language of making photos.

Phindi Flepu examines the dynamic of children in a woman's life. Not sweetly or bitterly, but matter-of-factly, offering a beauty which is about movement and truth, rather than something fitting any preconditioning about women's art or women's self-expression. Ingrid Masondo's Melancholy Maps (2003), is an amorphous image dealing with the blurring of hard edges, but also terrain, contrast and simple visual meaning.

Women are complicated beasts: they can be homosexual or pregnant, they can be wives and mothers, tearwipers and smack-givers. They can be feminine or butch. They can be beautiful in their obesity or their thinness. They can be made to cower, to shame themselves because of who they are or what they look like. Ultimately, their womanness is a social construct, but it is immutable.

Looking at women reflected on by women photographers is a very intimate but brash kind of affair. It's different from women being reflected upon by male photographers in its substance, focus and implication, and represents a victory for feminist ideology, in a sense. But this is dated. Feminism was fought and won in the bra-burning 1960s in the west (when South African black women were firmly entrenched as maids and underdogs). South Africa is still ideologically that far behind, all wet behind the ears with our democracy just 10 years old.

The exhibition celebrates our status and integrity as South Africans with the best Constitution in the world, offering necessarily discomfiting comment on the status quo. 'Are you comfortable?' comes with a rash of potential questions and answers. It has been necessary for South African photography for some time. An exhibition of this calibre is not ever obviously necessary. Kudos to those with the vision to have given it the serious platform it warrants.

Closed: October 24