05.11 - 31.05.2021
Big London art venues have a taste for the far-flung and exotic in their selections and this year South Africans are on show. At least three South African artists were exhibiting work at major galleries during May of 2021. Zanele Muholi just finished an expansive survey of their career to date at the Tate Modern, Bronwyn Katz has an exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey, and Igshaan Adams is at the Hayward Gallery.
The first time I saw Muholi’s work was at an exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, in 2017. The Somnyama Ngonyama portraits were so enigmatic, I remember. There was proud vulnerability, and a strong sense you’d entered someone else’s domain as the same, dressed face stared back again and again. There was theatre as well: bedsheets donned as solemn veils, crafted hair extension as crowns, and an Elizabethan collar-cuff suit. There was Vogue-styled, made-up, sexy low-dip posing in city parking lots. A few Brave Beauties, I presumed, had scribbled lipstick notes and hearts in support, on the gallery walls and picture frames. I left feeling touched.
In May, the lockdown was easing and London was coming back to life, and a friend suggested we visit Muholi’s Tate exhibition before closing at the end of the month. I had visited Bronwyn Katz’s gallery show only a few days before, and, beyond some vague tug of the expat’s duty, this was also a good chance to see the portraits again and hopefully something new. Other than this, I don’t remember building much more expectation of the show.
Well, the exhibition surprised me. What I did not expect was such an extensive undertaking of South African history, as well. Basic political facts packed room descriptions and captions, and a whole room was dedicated to a timeline of national history – Bantu Education Act, apartheid signage, and Dutch landing date included. Given the already massive scope of the exhibition, I felt a bit ambushed. Had I walked into an archaeological exhibit or a Naval history museum by mistake?
The survey was split into a sequence of roughly nine galleries or rooms following various bodies of work, most of which are ongoing. The first few galleries presented one photo series at a time, starting with Only Half of the Picture (2002-06) and Being (2006-), followed by the Queering Public Space and Brave Beauties (2014-) projects. The Faces and Phases series (2006-) project opened out into a big gallery hall of portrait-clad walls at the heart of the exhibition. This series is one of the artist’s largest to date, with over 500 portraits and growing. The following rooms then opened off to the side, with video testimonials by black South African LGBTQI+ participants, the Somnyama Ngonyama portraits (2012-), and finally the room of history to conclude an epic exhibition sequence.
And there was more. Bizarrely, the Tate provided a ‘Glossary’ as part of the exhibition guide materials. It explains words such as ‘Apartheid’ and ‘Bisexual’, but also ‘Homonationalism’ and ‘Lobola’. The Glossary intro states that the words to follow are ‘complex and nuanced,’ but goes on to define each within a few sentences anyway. A documentary photographer shows us worlds that, as a public, we don’t have access to, but they do; and documentary photographs are meant to build bridges into worlds unknown and capture things ‘that other people can’t see’ in Muholi’s words.
A glossary, in contrast, stands for a gap in understanding, literally the gap between expert and non-expert vocabulary. I imagine the intention was to communicate the fluid nature of these terms, and also contextualise LGBTQI+ culture through the specific or reclaimed terminology. Intentions aside, the effect of a glossary in this context cannot but undermine visitors’ own sense of their ability to build knowledge and understand others, while awkwardly offering a highly reduced set of definitions in place. A detail, admittedly, but a telling one. These ‘context’ props further reinforce the divides they apparently aim to bridge – between cultures, between visitor and photographs, and between the public and art institutions.
One could have walked the exhibition, wilfully ignoring the explanatory material. The overall sequence, for example, works well to reflect Muholi’s own timeline, starting with familiarity and relationships, and moving towards the iconic, public-facing projects. Bare-bodied romances and burial ceremonies were complimented by outward stances on Durban beaches. The vast number and variety of images could have made up a kind of microcosm exhibition: there were insides and outsides, a past and present of windows, memories, and pictures, all enhanced by the long procession from room to room. So why all the extra noise?
I wonder if I can even scrape the complexity of this exhibition’s dynamic, but I will try. The growing obsession, worldwide, with contextualising work might have some basis in a progressive reality, but it can destroy art and frustrate visitors. Globalisation has its perks, but this show was a reminder of the tricky problem of context in an international culture circuit, and the age-old problem of showing art for public appreciation. There is also a more exhibition-specific objection here, which is a tendency amongst curators to turn South African artists into avatars for the big national story of struggle and liberation. How unfair, to have one’s work co-opted and so thoroughly explained as, ultimately, an entertaining one-liner for the British public.
From the museum’s perspective, I can understand the initial impulse. The desire to explain the local substance of any work is legitimate and there is a lot in these photos that is especially South African. It is reasonable to think that much of the poignancy or gravity will be lost on a visitor who has little experience with South African history, politics, and cultural life. Muholi’s photographs of friends, family, and community take place in-situ and involve particular environmental markers. The broken barbed wire fence in Two Beaulahs (2006), or the interiors as seen in, for example, Ordeal (2003), engage the South African imagination in ways it wouldn’t others.
Given the proximity of exhibitions, Bronwyn Katz’s work is a good comparator for displaced local substance. Katz’s work is often highly linked to South African imagery and the artist builds meaning by using locally found materials that relate to specific social circumstances. Earlier iterations of her work involved even just an old mattress, cleaned and arranged in the corner of a gallery. More recently she reclaims these objects beyond recognition, but using colours and shapes which again still have direct links to local pattern-making and symbolic language. In contrast to the Tate, the exhibition has one explanatory pamphlet, which just explains why the work is meaningful: the new sculptures ‘deal with materiality, narrative and social history’ and there is a ‘focus on social identity, and the relationship this has to language and ancestry’ it says. How the average Londoner is capable of drawing out this level of meaning through the locally-charged markers in the work, I’m not quite sure. Although if they were not looking for those points in particular, they might have the space and time to find something else.
That being said, there is so much other imagery in Muholi’s pictures that is especially global in character, involving defiant, anti-norm, and LGBTQI+ cultures. And this is subcultural imagery, not yet woven into the fabric of national social consciousness: it is more than a South African story. If anything, Muholi’s work takes a social confessional line – it clearly aims at a global cultural shift, yet almost always involves material from the private and personal realms.
In a recent newsletter focus on Nan Goldin, the Marian Goodman Gallery describes her work with the ability to ‘capture a world that is universally human, yet highly personal’. Goldin, like Muholi, photographs friends and family belonging to local LGBT communities. Her best-known work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), tracks the lives of individuals through the HIV/aids and opioid crises over a few decades in New York. The depiction of private worlds will always involve some mystery, and this is not only part of the charm but also unavoidable. Similarly, with these photographs, I am sure that there is much I won’t grasp and imagine the pictures to be meaningful in particular ways to people who have lived the lives framed in them. The ‘universally human, yet highly personal’ expression is very common in descriptions of art, unsurprisingly. But here it exposes the discrepancy between an artist (Goldin) whose work is allowed to hold mystery and universality, and another artist (Muholi) whose work is not granted similar space, but rather seen as requiring a full explanation and contextualisation in order to function as intended.
In an FT article in 2018, Muholi wrote that: ‘What I’m doing is writing a South African visual history’ and, ‘We are here, and we can write, and we can contextualise and visualise our world as first persons’. Awkwardly, the show falters on these terms.
A friend called it Orientalism at work and I agree with that – the palatably exotic, another friend suggested. But it is also a mighty loss when the mystery and enigma of images is flattened by an excess of sensational, beside-the-point context. More information does not necessarily equal better understanding. Building meaning is personal and unpredictable; noise and clutter is distracting. Despite the mass of information present, to prop up an exhibition that needed no propping, it did the opposite of what it set out to do: it placed visitors at an even further distance from grasping or experiencing meaning through imagery. A glossary at a photo exhibition is alienating, at best. The differences in experience between the smaller Stevenson exhibition and the Tate survey are profound and speak to varieties of art venues and, I hope, the importance of small local spaces and the need for more understanding of the function of big ones. This is by no means a simple issue, but a little curatorial delicacy and restraint would have gone a long way.