All photographs come to us from the past. The photograph, at its most basic, traps moments as they happen in an image. Thus, photography is the art of memory. Photography makes it possible for the past to be possessed, preserved, and proven, or at least makes us believe this. As Teju Cole says, “All photography is a record of a lost past… and photography is necessarily an archival art.”
Perhaps this is why photography is the chosen medium for many of South Africa’s most celebrated contemporary artists – Zanele Muholi and David Goldblatt come immediately to mind – because South African art of the past twenty years almost prescriptively deals with hauntings of the not-so-distant past. Coincidentally, both artists are notable alumni of the Market Photo Workshop, a renowned photography school, gallery, and project space in Newtown, Johannesburg. Their work, and the work of other learners, trainers, mentors, project managers and staff who have passed through MPW in the past thirty years, is the subject of Not the Usual Suspects, a large-scale retrospective, currently on view at Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town.
Founded by Goldblatt in 1989, MPW initially focused on social documentary photography, with the hope that the socio-political landscape of apartheid South Africa be responsibly broadcasted and archived. This ethos is rooted much of the work produced in this show. There are photographers who act as witnesses in moments of political upheaval. Bongiwe Mchunu captures chaos as ‘Red Ants’ enforce a mass eviction in Joubert Park. Rosetta Msimango documents tear gas clouds and burning buses as student mobilisers and police collide during the 2016 #FeesMustFall protests. And there are photographers who give voice to otherwise-untold narratives of this country’s marginalised communities. Jenny Gordon’s portraits reveal the effects of environmental racism in Durban’s south-basin hub of heavy industry and oil refineries, where many residents have passed away from pollution-related illnesses. Vathiswa Ruselo revisits the lives of boxing heroes who fought when apartheid laws prevented black and white boxers from competing in the ring. Across MPW’s collective ouevre, it is clear artists are informed by an impulse to record, to make the past available.
Maybe it is this documentarian aspect, and the large scope of MPW’s associates, which gives me the sense that this collection was meant to say something about South African history. This line from a Russian tourist in the gallery comments book attests to my feeling: “Beautiful selection of artworks representing African art and context.” I think about how strange it is that photographers across geographies and generations, each with their own individual interests and reasons for coming to MPW, many of whom had probably never met each other, are now tailored to a coherent story, representative of their continent and their time. I think, if photographs are memories, then a photography exhibition in a major museum is memory institutionalised. The fact that this show is housed at the country’s preeminent public museum infers that these images make up a historical archive, their subjects players on a national stage.
I worry about what might get lost if personal memories are understood as reflections of a national identity. For instance, I am ashamed to notice how readily prescribed interpretations structure my experience of Lebohang Kganye’s series Ke Lafa Laka: Her-story. Kganye double-exposes found photos of her late mother with her own image, dressed up in her mother’s old clothes, mimicking her mother’s poses. Upon first glance, I assume this piece is concerned with intergenerational trauma and histories of the present, subjects which crop up regularly in art discourse, particularly when it calls the postcolonial into question. But Kganye’s artist statement takes a more fluid approach. The past is not a force which traps the present, hindering forward motion. Kganye speaks about photomontage as a way to “reconnect” and “reconstruct a new story.” The intergenerational encounter becomes a site for dialogue, healing, and the imagination of new possibilities. Another Kganye work features the artist dressed in her grandfather’s clothes, reenacting his story against a collage of family archives, magazine clippings, and Cole was wrong: photography is not necessarily an archival art. It’s also a medium for transfiguring, refashioning, and conversing with the past.
On my second walk through the national gallery, I am less concerned with how MPW’s archive is institutionalised by the national museum. I am more interested in how artists were reading the archive against the grain. Queer performance artist Queezy literally occupies the estate of modern art mainstay Irma Stern in Jody Brand’s “Moffie In Irma’s Garden.” Phumzile Khanyile intentionally overexposes and recklessly composes self-portraits in her grandmother’s bedroom, quietly exposing an otherwise hidden femininity and sexuality. Tshepiso Mazibuko obscures her subjects’ faces, rendering obvious signifiers and historical context illegible.
Not the Usual Suspects becomes not a retrospective of MPW but a cross-section of its ongoing story, populated by a dynamic interchange of passers-through. Perhaps more reflective of the Market itself, which Goldblatt once called a “functioning organism,” this survey understands the archive not as past, but as a living, breathing thing.