19.08 - 29.09.2020
Jabulani Dhlamini’s online exhibition, ‘the everyday waiting’ – accessible on the Goodman Gallery online viewing room – is a show of documentary photography that draws us into the everyday life of the community of Phiri in Soweto during the first four months of the government-sanctioned national lockdown. In the first month, at Alert Level 5, soldiers and the police patrolled the streets to ensure that people complied with the regulations as the government approached the pandemic in combat mode. On our television screens, we watched South Africa’s president dressed in full military camouflage, and the news headlines and visuals in the few days after were dominated by the men in uniform’s brutal and horrific behaviour as they had thrown logic out the window. Yet, in this exhibition, we do not see any footprint of the presence of the uniformed forces who invaded our communities to enforce the regulations, for this narrative is not about them.
Instead, by turning his lens onto the urban settlement of Phiri, Dhlamini employs the medium of photography as witness to record and help us navigate through the community and get a glimpse of the social and economic issues that affected its people in this dark period. Amidst the lockdown, the government promised to help cushion society’s most vulnerable – the unemployed, the elderly, and the young ones – with food aid and monthly welfare grants. Although the nation has just moved to Alert Level 1 and most of the regulations have eased gradually over the months, some people are still waiting for what the government promised them. The endless waiting is compounded by the fact that no one knows when the restrictions still in place will end, as well as when the battle with the pandemic will be over. In times like this, hope and patience keep people sane.
Except for one or two images capturing the sombre mood of sparsely attended funeral scenes, as mourners adhered to social- or physical-distancing, we get to know the individuals in each of the clear and expositional pictures as the photographer provides their names. It would not be easy to decode what occupied the minds of the subjects by merely looking at the images in this body of work. The documentarist does not leave the viewers’ minds to wander too far as each image is complemented with text that helps us appreciate the context and comprehend the full narrative. Through this, we gain insight into their experiences, thoughts, and expectations.
While we do not see the actual facial expressions in the form of smiles and frowns that are concealed behind the masks, the penetrating gazes of the eyes of the subjects in the straightforward frontal shots speak louder than words. The few who were photographed without masks are not smiling. They do not look happy. Where would they derive happiness faced with uncertainty? They appear to have borne a lot already. They are concerned. Are they bothered about the pandemic itself, or the prospects of imminent starvation due to retrenchments and unemployment? All threaten their existence anyway. That these images record an unusual event in history is seen through the dominant presence of the mask which has become the signature of the epoch we find ourselves in. It is this object that Hettie Judah has coined the new pandemic aesthetic. 1Hettie Judah. Everyday heroes: key workers celebrated at Southbank, where hundreds face sack. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/sep/03/everyday-heroes-review-key-workers-portraits-southbank-centre
Townships in South Africa are by design generally located far away from the central business districts of most cities and towns. That means they either supply labour to the more affluent areas as lowly-paid domestic workers, gardeners, shop attendants, cashiers, restaurant and hotel staff, or the inhabitants fend for themselves within the local informal sector economy as vegetable vendors and shebeen operators. Also found on the township streets are micro-businesses like salons and spaza shops. The reality is all these businesses, jobs and services rely on everyday interactions of people. The world has embraced the shifting of operations to the virtual realm as the new normal. But, what would that mean to the woman who breeds and sells chicken in the township and supplies them to the local shisa nyama proprietor, or the woman who works as a domestic helper who has stopped working due to the lockdown? Besides, the townships have the highest percentage of the unemployed. Therefore, it is easier to understand why under lockdown the marginalised people living in townships suffered the most.
Will there be light at the end of the tunnel or things are going to get worse? The best we can do is speculate as we do not know what life will be like in the aftermath of the pandemic. All we know is historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.2Arundhati Roy. The Pandemic is a Portal. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca While there is much pessimism as more people are losing jobs and earnings around the world, it is striking to see how some of the subjects framed in the photographer’s lens are hopeful for the future. Faith plays a big role in the lives of the people of Phiri as they refuse to bow down to the effects of the pandemic. Even while standing against a backdrop of an expanding graveyard – signified by the fresh mounts of dug out soil – the priest who has probably witnessed so many burials imparts a message of hope as he already looks forward to the future. Not that we would expect a priest to lose hope anyway. In another image we see an individual who was unemployed before the Covid-19 outbreak, sitting next to his black dog, anticipating getting a job in the post-lockdown phase. For some, the lockdown presented an opportunity to hustle as is the case of the man going from door to door selling bread.
South Africa is home to immigrants from different African countries who stay integrated within local communities. Most of them are engaged in menial jobs and the informal sector just like their hosts. In this exhibition we see an image of an individual from Lesotho, proudly clad in the distinctive traditional (and national) regalia, the Basotho blanket (Seana Marena), lamenting that he would have liked to travel back to his homeland in the Mountain Kingdom if he could afford the cost of the journey, his predicament exacerbated by the fact that the construction industry he works in has halted operations. The Mosotho’s narrative is like that of many other immigrants in different parts of South Africa. Likewise, while Dhlamini’s exhibition is about the community of Phiri, it is representative of several other townships with similar living conditions and characteristic outlook, including population dynamics.
The fear of this invisible enemy drove people to keep an eye on each other and effectively implement the lockdown regulations, even away from the watchful eyes of the law enforcement agents. While we have become so accustomed to seeing the ‘No Mask, No Entry’ signages on the entrances of shops, banks, government offices, and other places we frequently visit that we no longer pay attention to them, we never thought we would see them on our gates at home. While doomsayers who had predicted that Africa would be hit hard by the pandemic due to high levels of poverty and the poor conditions its people live in are probably still waiting for their prophecy to be fulfilled, this has not happened as the people listened to their governments and took individual responsibility to adhere to the required precautionary measures. It is also possible that natural remedies like umhlonyana have helped save lives on the continent, yet the world is not looking to Africa for solutions.3https://www.sowetanlive.co.za/amp/news/south-africa/2020-07-08-covid-19-research-team-looking-at-umhlonyana-as-one-of-anti-coronavirus-therapeutics/
On the 14th of June, the Singaporean newspaper Straits Times48 in 10 Singaporeans willing to pay more for essential services: Survey https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/manpower/8-in-10-singaporeans-willing-to-pay-more-for-essential-services published poll results that placed artists on pole position on the list of the top five non-essential workers in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the results were for a national survey, the news went viral beyond the Asian country’s borders, sparking interesting and intense debates around the world, with artists making a strong case for their profession. I remember following the 24-hour Pageant which featured artists, arts administrators, curators, educators, students, and many other arts-associate stakeholders – discussing whether they regard their work as essential or not. When I watched the video accompanying this online exhibition and listened to Dhlamini stating his intention to channel the proceeds of this body of work towards the individuals he collaborates with in making the work, as well as the Thol’ulwazi Community Development caring for orphans in Phiri, I began to ask myself why the artist would be perceived as ‘non-essential’ when he is making efforts to take care of the marginalised ordinary people neglected by the same government which seems not to value his trade. Although he articulates the noble gesture as an expression of Ubuntu – humanity towards others – the work he is doing subverts the narrow definition of an ‘essential-worker’ even within the context of the uncertain times we face.