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'Kith, Kin and Khaya'

David Goldblatt at South African Jewish Museum

By Sean O'Toole
01 November - 11 February. 0 Comment(s)
Afternoon tea being served to two men repairing a car on a sidewalk in Fairview, Johannesburg

David Goldblatt
Afternoon tea being served to two men repairing a car on a sidewalk in Fairview, Johannesburg, 1965. .

'David!' I shouted at the slightly stooped man in short pants staring at the new hotel on Orange Street. He squinted, surprise soon yielding to recognition as I came closer. 'It’s weird, isn’t it,' I said, pointing at the rectilinear building lit by colourful lighting opposite. 'Astonishing,' replied David Goldblatt. For a moment we said nothing, both of us staring at something, a building perhaps, but also the lingering residue of what was, a something now only contained in photographs.

In October 1965, a month shy of his thirty-fifth birthday, Goldblatt made the first of three black and white photos of the former Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk on Orange Street; it shows formally attired Afrikaner clergymen seated in rows in the synod hall. Nearly two decades later, on August 16, 1986, Goldblatt returned, producing an exterior view of the synod hall. It is winter in this photo, the trees lining the pavement bare. The third photograph summarises the historical arc of his photography generally, as well as his serial occupation with buildings and habit of returning to the sites of old photographs. Made on April 25, 2007, this photograph shows a giant metal claw picking at the collapsed body of the demolished synod hall. The World Cup was coming; Cape Town needed visitor beds, not bankrupt memorials to a recent past.

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None of these photos appear in 'Kith, Kin and Khaya', a retrospective exhibition of Goldblatt’s black and white camera work that opened at the South African Jewish Museum in November after a successful summer run at the Jewish Museum, New York. (They were, however, included on 'Intersections Intersected', originally shown at Michael Stevenson in 2008 before travelling to the New Museum, New York, last year.) But for architect-builder Koos Reynecke’s rondavel-inspired Dutch Reformed Church in Quellerina and a circle of earth containing seating for Johannesburg adherents of the Jersusalema Apostolic Church in Zion, the Jewish Museum’s sampling of photos from Goldblatt’s formally aloof but intellectually engaged 'Structures' project includes no other churches. Not even the Mayfair synagogue, which like his photographs of the Orange Street synod hall makes its point in an uncomplicated manner – it is shot at front, on street level, there as you or I would have seen it had we cared to pause and notice.

Faith has long interested Goldblatt, partly because of its root emphasis on values. The details might diverge, but all faiths share a common interest in normative values. Goldblatt is not a religious man but he has repeatedly emphasised how his project as a photographer is defined by his interest in values, particularly how they manifest in physical form – as a church, a slum, a public notice, a smashed gravestone, a neatly appointed domestic interior, a statue of a horse enclosed by a cage to prevent theft, even a bikini. Since declaring himself a professional photographer on September 15, 1963, Goldblatt has spent a lifetime finding and photographing the evidentiary fragments of South Africa’s atomised sense of value. He was 32 when took this leap of faith.

The photographs assembled on 'Kith, Kin and Khaya' are grouped into seven sections that, but for a section devoted to his earliest journeyman attempts, are more or less consistent with Goldblatt’s publishing output, which started in 1973 with the publication of On the Mines. Goldblatt’s early work is for the most part tentative and saccharine, yet in its own way illuminating. As a discrete body of work it underscores the unequivocally social remit of his way of seeing, which over time has (for better or worse) come to be ranked first among equals.

'Goldblatt is rightfully feted for his art,' remarked photographer Omar Badsha in a recent interview, 'but what we need is to interrogate his work and go beneath the very carefully crafted narratives and biography he has constructed so that we get a better understanding of the man, the circumstances he worked in and how that has produced a body of work that allowed him to create a view of our fragmented cultural landscape that will continue to engage generations to come'. 'Kith, Kin and Khaya' eschews this strategy, Ingrid Sischy’s pithy introduction in the Goodman Gallery funded catalogue underscoring the reverential tone of this exhibition. Sischy describes Goldblatt as 'a true misfit in the history of photography' and 'a one-of-a-kind'. Well, yes and no.

In 1976 Allan Sekula performed a critique of documentary photography that offers a possible key for interpreting aspects of Goldblatt’s practice. Using white chalk he wrote a brief image/text proposition on a concrete wall. Titled 'Four lessons on photography for the petit bourgeoisie', like Martha Rosler’s famous 1981 essay on the ambiguities defining the documentary idiom, Sekula’s artistic ‘findings’ suggest that Goldblatt is by no means sui generis.

Amongst the selection of early works at the Jewish Museum is a Constance Stuart Larrabee-like portrait of a partially naked woman framed in a doorway. Made at Qolaha Mouth, Transkei, in 1956, it unambiguously plays out Sekula’s first dialectic, 'pleasure/tropics'. Goldblatt’s many street scenes from old Johannesburg similarly court Sekula’s 'pity/slums' proposition. Sekula’s third argument, 'glamour & celebrity/envy', is an interesting one, although it is hard to construe Goldblatt’s 1966 portrait of a frail looking Harry Oppenheimer as a Vanity Fair moment. Notwithstanding his Leadership portraits and work for Margaret Courtney-Clark’s 1981 book Cape Dutch Homesteads – neither of which bodies of work is represented on the show – Goldblatt, for the most part, eschewed celebrity portraiture.

It is however Sekula’s fourth proposition, 'police authority/terror', that hints at Goldblatt’s idiosyncrasies and particularities as a photographer working within a very particular timeframe, high apartheid and its aftermath. Early on, while still an amateur hoping to become a professional, Goldblatt tried his hand at rhetorical photographs recording local politics. They didn’t work. Later, drawing on the lessons he acquired as an editorial photographer, he began to make photographs that parsed the interstices between public and private for things approximating the truth about the South African condition. This process necessarily meant avoiding a formula, which Sekula and Rosler lapse into with their radical left position and post-documentary fixation on the serial image. 'Kith, Kin and Khaya' makes apparent the extent to which Goldblatt, a self-described liberal, has immersed himself in the South African condition.

The exhibition, comprised exclusively of black and white silver gelatin prints, is an object lesson in enquiry – engaged enquiry, wide-ranging enquiry, nervous enquiry, respectful enquiry, occasionally even amused enquiry. Although there are moments of rhetorical storytelling, like the previously unseen photograph of a police vehicle transporting detainees through the centre of Boksburg stillness pervades most of his work. His photograph of a brick home in Boksburg, the lawn recently mowed, the faux concrete balustrades as new as the house beyond, recalls Luc Sante’s description of Walker Evans’ 1930s pictures as 'rigorously plain'. In her introduction, which closes with a humorous anecdote about Goldblatt cycling in New York, Sischy also uses the word 'rigour' to quantify his photography.

'Rigour' is a slippery word. It denotes the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive or accurate, a fact born out by the photographer’s assiduous (and recently baroque) captioning of his photographs. Goldblatt’s 1998 book, The Structure of Things Then, makes clear his nuanced understanding of the relationship between image and text, a strategy profitably duplicated in 'Kin, Kith and Khaya’s catalogue layout and introductory text panels. Rigour can however also manifest as a form of severity or strictness, a solemnity that finds a visual correlative in Goldblatt’s photograph of the uniformed elders gathered on Orange Street in 1965. 'Kith, Kin and Khaya' verges on this sort of formal rigour, offering an orthodox exegesis of a career. The Afrikaners stay Afrikaners, separate from the Bantustan people, somehow apart from the Johannesburg crowd. There are few surprises, hinting at the big job waiting on a future generation of curators intent on revitalising our appreciation of Goldblatt’s vast archive.

To its credit, 'Kith, Kin and Khaya' is a visual treat. The photographs are small, demanding up-close looking. The show includes previously unseen work. And, even if they are absent, there is an undercurrent of conversation going on with other photographers. It is remarkable, for instance, how Goldblatt’s 1975 photograph of a threadbare home in Coffee Bay, Transkei, both pre-empts and enriches an appreciation of the work of Santu Mofokeng. The most recent photograph on the show is from 2009 and shows a mass of Zimbabwean refugees sleeping in Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church. The photograph takes you back to the beginning, in particular a 1952 photograph showing a group of Malawian miners returning to then Nyasaland. Goldblatt was 22 when he made this photograph, two years older than J.H. Pierneef’s famous Station Panels. I draw the comparison not to underscore Goldblatt’s age – he turned 80 in November – but to suggest how young the South African art canon is. To my mind, Goldblatt’s reputation is assured. His strange fruit, so astringent at times, cannot be denied.