05.05 - 25.06.2022
It is liberating to enter a room of photographs that are not forcefully ‘about’ a particular subject matter. Mack Magagane’s Ellipse cuts loose, not only from his past training in documentary practice but, more broadly, from a specific course charted by South African photography. In the 1980s, photography in this country was largely defined by its relationship to political and social injustice. In the following decades, photographers negotiated this legacy, finely tuned to the politics of representation. The 1990s also saw South African photography entering the gallery in force, both locally and internationally.
In an essay accompanying her 2011 exhibition Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, Tamar Garb claimed that “…ethnography, documentary and portraiture…continue to haunt contemporary practices…the fictions and fantasies of the present…are always in dialogue with the residues of these traditions.” While looking to the past and translating tradition is important and has produced significant bodies of work, it is refreshing to engage with a contemporary photography exhibition that does not navigate the thin line between documentary and formalism.
Magagane’s photographs allude to narratives as varied as the Odyssey and the novels of Nnedi Okorafor. On entering the exhibition, music resonates from the roof and fills the room with a rolling, looping sound track to transport the viewer through the chapters of the story. The wall opposite the entrance is painted a strong sky blue that calls to mind CGI blue screens. We are firmly in the realm of speculative fiction with characters such as Baby Astro and Drago and other works titled Wisdom, Liberty and Destiny. The images comprise elegantly lit cloth that are transformed into a variety of characters and symbols: classical busts, a thunder bolt, a dove and angels. The visual language is symbolic, but also taps into historical and pop cultural iconography.
The eclecticism of the series is evident throughout, most prominently in the large triptych Passage, which conveys the sense of passing over a landscape. The aerial sweep from pale silvery grey, through bronzed earth to deep forest green is at odds with more literal associations with the fabrics. The synthetic silvery satin suggests curtaining, the machine quilted pattern is perhaps a brown bedcover and the green a large towel. While this image evokes a planet’s surface, or the shadows cast by the fold of low hills, it is simultaneously constructed from the stuff of domestic life. A close inspection of the cloth reveals that these textiles have been worn. The seams are frayed, folds soft from skin contact, suggesting the scent of the body they kept warm.
There is a tension between something as banal as a discarded piece of clothing and an epic story built on narratives of good versus evil, betrayal and triumph. This balancing act is found in other conceptual and abstract photographic projects, and Magagane ultimately succeeds because of the multiple layers of signs within the images.
For instance, in Creation, we are confronted with torn strips of medical gauze on concrete. This image resonates with the acts of wrapping and healing, but simultaneously death and disease. Part remnant of a shroud, part scrap, this image contrasts to Triumph, in which the same fabric is wrapped around a stick like the Rod of Asclepius: the snake entwined staff of the Greek God of healing and, in our contemporary context, medical workers. In Magagane’s interpretation, the staff is also a blade, suggesting the violence that can accompany triumph. Similarly, Glory evokes both crown and noose.
In his refusal to depict the predictable, Magagane is perhaps not that different from some of his forebears. Even at the height of the medium’s didactic powers in South Africa, there were other narratives being told. Santu Mofokeng’s evocative investigation of spirituality and his transcendent image making pushed the limits of what we might call documentary. His is a vivid reminder that the medium is not always bound to history. Magagane’s earlier black and white nocturnal images exhibit a similar sensibility.
Messenger serves as an entry point into the exhibition’s larger concerns. It is a photograph of a white Nike sneaker fitted with a wing of white fabric on a blue background. In its overt reference to the Greek goddess of Victory, this image inserts street culture into classical literature. It is worth noting that the goddess Nike represented victory in an array of fields including art, music, war and athletics. Magagane is not the only cultural producer to be prodding the porous boundaries between high and low and the relative value and social capital associated with the museum and the street, the ‘west and the rest’. Magagane’s images are not didactic but, in blurring his sources, he suggests a space where new creative languages are possible.
Not all the images are as smoothly decoded as Messenger. In Companionships, we are confronted with a rich red fabric. Torn strips of deep gold velvet lie on top. Suggesting loosened bonds, or a form of intergalactic cuneiform, this image hints at a language I am not able to speak, but could learn. At the heart of Magagane’s series, there is a disjunct between something that is universal and something that is deeply personal – the fabric that touches, warms and dries skin. In his hands, the abstract and the unknowable are gently moulded into a new narrative. By putting the medium to test and exploring new possibilities, this show leaves me with excitement for the next chapter of South African contemporary photography.