SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
28.10 – 18.11.2017
The group exhibition ‘PEER’ at SMAC’s Cape Town branch showcases the photographic work of artists both born and practicing on the African continent. The selection of images in ‘PEER’ are primarily part of larger bodies of work and represent each artist’s unique point of view of their chosen subjects. The photographs within the exhibition deserve the viewer’s time and a level of effort to understand the personal stories and histories contained beneath the surface of the images. The exhibition is strategically designed in a way that draws one into the gallery space, but also offers breathing room between each series. Although the artists have each focused on documenting different social issues and subject matters, all of them remain connected to one another through broader themes in some way. As such, they appear to embrace their peers and one can discern connections in a number of ways.
One of the themes that can be identified, though not limited to, is the subject of religion and performance. Fascinated by the various forms of syncretic religions that have merged in the context of urban migration in South Africa, Zara Julius’ photography investigates the interplay between identity, worship and culture. Following specific narratives and geographies across Johannesburg pertaining to members of the Nazareth Baptist Church – an African Initiated Church – the artist’s work Doornfontein Station, Johannesburg (2014) shows a sea of congregants dressed in white robes outside the city’s Doornfontein train station, turning the park into a sacred space on Saturday mornings. The photograph was taken after a service, where some men and women dance umgidi – which has strong ties to tradition Zulu dances and is considered a form of prayer. Julius manages to capture fragments of spiritual experience and imagination as they are reflected in the streets of the inner city.
As part of an ongoing project, Beninese artist Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s Egungun series documents vibrantly coloured masquerade performers that are associated with the Egungun religious festival, which is a diverse mode of ritual performance dedicated to the worship of Yoruba ancestral forebears and liminal spirits from the world of the dead. While Agbodjélou’s use of studio portraiture affords the viewer a great degree of detail of their performers’ costumes, the static images contrast significantly with the energetic vision of these figures in performance. This is something that the artist has been criticised for by the Yoruba community of because of its semblance to ethnographic photography of ‘the other’.
Another theme picked up on in ‘PEER’ is the issue of removal. The work of Ashely Walters considers the landscapes, spaces and structures of lives lived on Cape Town’s Tamboerskloof farm in addition to the suburb of Uitsig on the periphery of the Mother City. One definition of the Afrikaans word uitsig means to see that which is out of sight or hidden – a description that aptly applies to the artist’s projects that bring light to the ways in which people navigate their personal lives and physical environments. Ashley Walter’s Temporary Housing During the Upgrading of Social Housing, Eureka (2013) portrays several shipping containers grouped and stacked on top of each other in pairs. These containers are used as temporary dwellings to house those moved from council housing while their homes are renovated in Eureka, Cape Town. While the photograph brings awareness to the chronic housing crisis in South Africa, for the artist it also speculates about the intangible ramifications of removals in the loss of telephone numbers, changes in addresses, and the unfamiliarity of new sounds.
Conversely, Sydelle Willow Smith’s Orania Plant Life (2017) presents insight into self-induced segregation – an issue she explores in her Un/Settled series that questions the meaning of being white today. The close-up of green foliage is situated in the white-only Afrikaner town of Orania, located along the Orange River in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape. Critics have accused the town authorities of rejecting the Rainbow Nation concept and trying to recreate pre-democratic South Africa from within an enclave. Displayed deliberately beneath another photograph of a forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo titled ‘Joseph Conrad’s dark heart’, this decision alludes to the fact that history of white South Africans is inseparable from longer histories of exploitation, oppression and “the made heart of European expansion”.
The work of Shamil Balram can be seen as an extension of the flânuer, an observer of the streets. His black and white photography is attentive to the candid capturing of the life and human nature of individuals working and moving through the streets of Durban’s city centre and central train station. Through his practice the artist has expressed the desire to challenge people’s understanding of their identity and importance to society by acknowledging the uniqueness and individuality of South African’s citizens – a feat he has achieved by capturing ordinary people living their ordinary lives in ordinary spaces.
The candidness of Balram’s photographs is similarly found in the work of Musa N. Nxumalo. Influenced by documentaries mapping the rise of rave culture in Manchester, the artist offers commentary on South Africa’ contemporary culture and notions of identity. Nxumalo’s portraits and scenes from everyday nightlife in Soweto explores the attitudes of a group of people who are at an age notorious for self-discovery and self-definition. The carefree directness of the black and white photographs strikes one instantly as an Instagram-worthy documentation of people at a party. A distinctive image of a young black man wearing a leopard-patterned blazer and a chain around his neck with bloodshot eyes and a creased brow echoes the spontaneity of this body of work that reflects the universality of the simultaneous turbulence and vivaciousness of youth.
Without a doubt, this intriguing show calls the viewer to be cognizant of the double meaning held by the exhibition’s title. To peer is to look closely and earnestly. However, to refer to someone as a peer means to regard them as an equal. Exhibited in South Africa, the artists of ‘PEER’ offer people interesting snippets of the lives of different people living on the same continent. Of course, the experience of attending the exhibition is made infinitely more rewarding once one begins to notice the subtle links between the bodies of work on display.
This review was selected for publication from the Art Criticism course for Honours students at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art