Memory and space have always shared a kind of inextricable bond in our minds and in our lived realities. It is in the way we look for history in altered landscapes, attempt to trace time and change through space, or struggle to make sense of those short, sharp pangs of emotion whenever we find ourselves someplace like home. In Jabulani Dhlamini’s most recent show at The Goodman, he excavates these tensions.
‘Isisekelo’ comprises a series of recent photographic works created across the country and continent. Cape Town, Soweto, and Réunion Island are all represented through the gentle lens of Dhlamini, but it is the images produced during his frequent visits to the small Free State town of Warden that provide the basis for the artist’s inquiries into our subjective negotiations and relationships with space.
In late 2016, explains the exhibition statement, Dhlamini travelled to his birthplace in the Free State to visit his great grandfather’s grave. The gravesite was situated on a farm which Dhlamini’s family had lived on for generations (provided a male member of the family worked on the land). When Dhlamini’s uncle, who had lived on the farm for 50 years, passed away and left nobody behind, the family lost access to the land. Dhlamini’s return to, and subsequent navigations of this space – both physically and emotionally – are layered and complex, and it is this peculiar tension that announces itself throughout all of the works in ‘Isisekelo’.
How do you begin to make sense of a place you have such intimate ties to, but have never formed any of your own memories around? How do you begin to view and document a space that you have come to know only through stories? And how do we build new memories around spaces that still bear the heavy weight of the past?
In Umoya, there is a home, a torrential downpour, and two independent figures navigating a fenced-off plot of land. In Uhambo, there are taxis, cars, and congregations of people going about their business. Both works are presented as triptychs and contain full frames of activity that are difficult to make out through the heavy rain or the misted windows. There are events taking place and people carrying out activities, but you are not sure of what exactly. In this way, Dhlamini captures the indeterminate longing that often accompanies flashes of memory, or the fractured moments of a dream half-recalled.
He extends these tensions to his other works, too, sometimes playing with the viewer’s own gaze. In Phantsi komthunzi II Réunion Island we see a child seated next to a crucifix. The scene appears pedestrian until you take note of the other figures behind the dense foliage within the frame. Suddenly, the child is no longer alone, they are separated from a group of others and it is not clear why. Dithako, Réunion Island, a seemingly unpopulated image of a statue with a leafy plant sprouting from the place where its head should be (cleverly mirrored in the work Phantsi komthunzi Réunion Island), evokes a similar edge when you look beyond the foreground and see that, in the rows of box-shaped apartments, unidentifiable figures are busying themselves in their rooms.
Beyond the strictly metaphysical, Dhlamini’s works also unpack contemporary understandings of South Africa’s history, and the ways in which we navigate that history as well as how we’ve progressed from it. Metse e metle kantle comprises a series of images, each containing a semi-detached house in Soweto. Symmetry, or the absence of it, becomes a metaphor here. Structures are split down the middle, one half bearing a green garden while the other contains only dry soil, and some homes turned into informal, street-facing businesses while their other halves are bricked-up and windowless. The works, exhibited in a grid-like format, serve as a tracing of time. Considering their placement in the present day, they also function as a necessary reminder or warning about how far we have really come in 25 years of democracy.
Finally, a series of images titled Umlando documents the stubborn histories of coloniality in our times through the documentation of statues, monuments and plinths bearing the names of Rhodes, Smuts, van Riebeek and more. All of these images contain people going about their present days while the past persists. A photograph of a student sitting beneath a bust of Jan Smuts with their head lowered and eyes to their phone is all the more effective when viewing a photograph from the same series showing the empty plinth where Rhodes once sat, a cellphone image of the statue’s removal held up in front of it.
These works, like all of the works in ‘Isisekelo’, strike at the heart of that difficult question Dhlamini puts forward in his images: What will we do with all of this history?