Chavonnes Battery Museum, Cape Town
04.11.16 – 15.02.17
The promotional image for ‘1% Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality’ – featuring a presumed 1%er floating in an infinity pool high up against the Singapore skyline– has been at the back of my mind for a while now. Taken from a photograph by Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti, it’s a striking image, succinct in its depiction of the self-alienation inherent in striving for the top. It’s obvious why curator Myles Little rolled with it as the face of the exhibition. (Although why it is included twice in the exhibition, captions and all, is not as clear). Largely prompted by the afore-mentioned photograph and thick in the midst of the January art-dwaal, it seemed as good a time as any to satiate my curiosity about the Cape Town stop of the exhibition, which has been roaming internationally since September 2015.
‘1% Privilege…’ spans approximately 40 photographs, all presented in more or less the same smallish landscape format. There are no two-meter mega-diasecs to be found and the focus is firmly on the content rather than the delivery. In general, the works tend to orbit around the hub of the 2008 financial crisis and the 2011 Occupy movements, but with a slight global focus. It is inevitable that travelling exhibitions (especially those with a political angle) have a tendency towards becoming what Deleuze and Guattari like to call tracings, frozen images disconnected and removed from the fluctuations of time, and the world has certainly become an unprecedentedly stranger and more distressing place since they were created. Ultimately, the pieces which really prompt discussion are the ones with greater, open-ended resonance, where the image and the contextual information complement each other.
A definite highlight is Simon Norfolk’s long exposure depiction of insects nuking themselves on the mercury halide lamps on the Arizona/Mexico border. The contemporary resonance is obvious, but Norfolk’s project speaks to the presence of increased ‘hi-techifying’ of the US/Mexico border even in 2007 when Boeing was awarded a $2 billion contract to ‘make the Berlin Wall and even the Israel/West Bank Fence seem like Lego’ (to quote Norfolk’s artist statement).
A pair of photographs from David Chancellor’s Intruders series forms another smart addition to the exhibition, pointing to the vast complexities related to inequality and the filching of resources (ie. mining) in Africa. The series focuses on the relationship between the local Kuria people and the North Mara Gold mine in Tanzania; operated by London-based Acacia Mining. Apparently the term ‘intruders’ has been adopted by the Kuria into the Swahili dialect to refer to an occupation that can create wealth. As one of the only options for income, up to 800 ‘intruders’ a day routinely put their lives on the line by illegally entering the mine in order to scrounge the waste heaps for traces of gold dust to sell to local dealers.
Untitled #II (2011) is an expansive landscape shot of the steep rock face inside the mine, peppered (if one looks closely) with ‘intruders’ descending the cliff face. Their civilian attire contrasts glaringly with the full body armour of the mine security in Chancellor’s second image Untitled #IV. Chancellor notes that police shifts at the mine are so profitable that they often bribe their superiors for a position there. Together, the two photographs form a succinct, visually arresting pair. Incidentally, Acacia Mining opted to settle a case brought against them in February 2015 by families of those killed by the mine’s security guards out of court; not before changing their name.
What makes Norfolk, Chancellor and Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s contributions work is their ability to stand as evocative photographs while also providing an entry point into larger issues of inequality which resonate strongly. An issue with many of the other works such as Shane Lavalette’s Harvard University (2006) is that while they touch on important points (access to education/ excessive fees for subpar education in Lavalette’s case) the photographs themselves often do nothing to convey that. Without the captions, there’s not much to read into them. Compared to something like Sethembile Msezane’s Chapungu-The Day Rhodes Fell (2015) or any of the photographers included in Justin Davy’s #theopening exhibition last year, it’s exceptionally dull. The captions do the hard work and the photographs are basically just there.
In reviewing a travelling exhibition such as ‘1% Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality’, there are essentially two exhibitions under review: the travelling exhibition itself and then its local incarnation. As discussed with the former, there’s a mixture of good stuff and the nonchalantly meh and, with this many images/artists, I imagine that the hits and misses are largely subjective.
I do find as a whole that it’s tricky to pin down exactly what Little wants to get across with his selection of photographs. The goal seems to be to use images centred on privilege rather than poverty in order to discuss inequality. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that approach, it’s just that the exhibition somehow feels noncommittal and reluctant to really get into the nitty gritty of the increasingly devastating effects of global inequality. I’m not pushing for poverty porn here or anything to that effect, but where Joseph E. Stiglitz’s fiery introductory text in the exhibition’s catalogue is pointed and concise (‘Curbing the transmission of advantage from one generation to another and providing hope for the 569 million children living in extreme poverty is a matter of social justice… The time to act is now.’), the exhibition often feels like it’s sitting on the fence.
The perennial problem of photographic othering rears its head yet again as well and, unfortunately, the usual issues of inclusion apply here. As far as I can tell, barring one or two artists, the roster of 40 artists is entirely white and overwhelmingly male. Regardless of whether the lens is pointed at the 1% or the 99%, surely that’s a whole lot of key voices regarding inequality being cut out. (Mikhael Subotzky’s 2006 work Residents, Vaalkoppies (Beaufort West Rubbish Dump) was the lone voice of South Africa in the first incarnation of the exhibition in New York, but he opted out of being a part of this version.)
As we are repeatedly reminded, Gini coefficients suggest that South Africa ranks amongst the most unequal society on the planet and exclusion from a dialogue which purports to be global diminishes the returns of the exhibition somewhat. The importance of self-representation is exemplified by Zed Nelson’s Wall around private home (Cape Town, South Africa 2014) – the only work to speak directly to the current context – with its cringey “What’s happening to Madiba’s South Africa?!?” caption. Lacking in nuance and insight, it doesn’t really have anything to say about the complexities of inequality in the Western Cape.
That being said, the things which do pull you into Cape Town’s particular issues of inequality lie outside of the exhibition itself. Unironically charging 70 bucks entrance for an exhibition intended to spark conversation about inequality (at the V&A Waterfront nog al) and launching #OnePercentCapeTown as a social media campaign should probably have been thought through a little better.