Ranjith Kally, Senzeni Marasela and Ruth Motau at Goodman Gallery
by Michael Smith
Though no specific theme unites the works on this photographic show, there are subtle connections between the output of all of these artists that create a loose and productive cohesion. It is seldom that a loose (or absent) curatorial brief results in an interesting show, but the individual strengths of these artists certainly make this a worthwhile exercise.
Ranjith Kally, who was the subject of a 2004 Goodman Gallery retrospective entitled '60 Years in Black and White', curated by Riason Naidoo, this time shows a series of works which capture Black and Indian dancers, beauty queens and glamour models. While a gentle sexiness seems to be his aim in many of these works (some border on Pam Grier-style blaxploitation), the images nonetheless resonate beyond the superficial, serving as documents of notions of 'non-white' beauty throughout the most stringently racist period of South Africa's history. In many cases the women photographed were not eligible for inclusion in mainstream beauty pageants because of inescapable racial classification policy.
As such, the images often operate at the nexus of race and beauty, and are entirely consistent with Black and Indian pride typified by the halcyon days of Drum magazine, a publication for which Kally during the apartheid era. Possibly due to their value as historical records, these works seem to avoid getting caught up in debates around exploitation and objectification, and become more about exploring ideas surrounding the representation of the body, and specifically how the sexualised 'non-white' body was presented in an overarching atmosphere of marginalisation.
Senzeni Marasela, whose work up to now has been characterised by an interest in the misuse of images and stories from our immediate history, shows a compelling new series of photographic works called Theodorah comes to Johannesburg (2003/06). A simple yet intimate gesture underpins this series, which is about the artist's mother's move to the city from rural Eastern Cape in the 60s: the artist wears an old dress of her mother's and is photographed wearing it at various locations around modern-day Johannesburg.
The series is the counterpoint to an important student work of Marasela's calledOur Mother, which dealt with her difficult relationship with her mother. As Kathryn Smith states in her 2000 Artthrob Artbio on Marasela, 'Our Mother depicts a dress discarded by her mother, set against images of Marasela and her siblings. Pins cluster in the breast area of the dress, a gesture indicating the loss Marasela feels "being deprived of a mother figure"'. When viewed in context of this immediate personal history,Theodorah comes to Johannesburg seems like a step towards empathy and understanding. The series reveals how Theodorah Marasela never quite felt at home in urban Johannesburg, and the works explore, through sequence and the repeated motif of the artist's lonely figure in the often forbidding urban landscape, the plight of a woman at the mercy of a system for which the individual was no match.
Elsewhere in the gallery space, a re-showing of some of Marasela's older works which dealt with the death of teenage acitivist Stompie Sepei is an altogether more chilling take on the child-adult relationship. As has been well documented, Sepei, most famously filmed toyi-toying with Winne Madikizela-Mandela's 'Mandela United Soccer Club' at the tail-end of apartheid, died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 13. The concept of Sepei's death became the evil twin mental image to the famous photo of comrades carrying the dead body of Hector Pietersen, killed in 1976 in the Soweto Uprising. Pietersen's death became cast as a clearcut case of martyrdom at the hands of a brutal regime: Sepei's death, as problematised here by Marasela, became something altogether more fraught, a 'symbol' of a brutalised society without the luxury of an iconic image to attach itself to.
Ruth Motau, who has contributed work to publications ranging from the New York Times and Elle magazine, the Mail & Guardian to NGO newsletters and community newspapers, here focuses on three sets of marginalised subsections of township communities: pensioners, Krishna devotees and blind children at a special school.
The series dealing with Black pensioners is particularly resonant in South Africa right now: ongoing since 1993, the images document the tenacity of pensioners who wait at pay-points for cash payments despite weather conditions or the dangers of crime, such is their mistrust of the banking system. Significantly, the series touches on the reality that many pensioners in South Africa have orphaned grandchildren to care for, as the HIV/Aids pandemic tightens its grip on adults from 18 - 48. In its subtlety and obliqueness, this observation reveals the extent to which Motau is an important figure in the evolution of South African documentary photography beyond the tactics of sensationalist imagery.
Opens: August 19
Closes: September 9
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