Figures & Fictions aims to display the multiplicity of South African identities through the diverse work of seventeen contemporary photographers who live and work there.
The choice of the V&A as an exhibition venue is interesting as its collections of non-Western artefacts are tied to its colonial history: during the museum’s establishment in the nineteenth century, the forceful acquisition and display of these artefacts – often presented in ways which demeaned its culture of origin – re-affirmed the power and supremacy of the British Empire. Figures & Fictions, rather than constructing an image of a static colonial past occupied by a homogeneous “Other”, is an engaging tour of a post-colonial society.
…playing with our conceptions of race and family.
The photographs are all hung in a sleek black-walled room and are populated by a variety of figures, which complicate ideas of race, class, gender expression and identity, challenging perceptions of post-Apartheid South Africa.
This engagement happens from the moment the viewer enters the exhibition: Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa by Pieter Hugo is hung at the entrance. It is a huge image of a seated white middle-aged couple with a black toddler on their lap. It almost looks like a typically stilted family portrait, where stiffly posed people are arranged in a bland studio setting by the photographer. However, the family also seem to be in a homely sitting room and are informally dressed. Maryna gently touches Timana’s foot as she holds him. It is a combination of very posed photograph, domestic comfort, and familial tenderness, playing with our conceptions of race and family.
Hugo is invested in documentary photography as a way of experiencing truth, but not a straightforward kind of truth: he also considers the agency of the subject of the photograph and their role in constructing the final image.
…captures gay South African men wearing dresses with the cool, stylish distance of a fashion editorial.
Sabelo Mlangeni also produces documentary photography that complicates the relationship between subject, photographer, and viewer. Mlangeni’s approach is to gain personal access to overlooked communities over a long period of time. Yet his Country Girls series captures gay South African men wearing dresses with the cool, stylish distance of a fashion editorial. The men were photographed just as Mlangeni found them around their small rural towns, yet the disposition of the sitters are far from casual or reserved: they possess great poise and perform in front of the camera, posing confidently in heels. Their subversion of expected gender presentation provokes thought about expressions of gender and sexuality outside of a Eurocentric context.
The Country Girls series is hung opposite the street fashion shots of Nontsikelelo ‘Lolo’ Veleko. There is an immediate visual contrast between the elegant black and white of Mlangeni’s work with the saturated hues in Veleko’s images. Looking more closely, one can also see the contrast of the countryside with the city, and the similarity of the construction of marginalised identities through fashion – what can be interpreted as mere surface stylishness can in fact be a personal expression of identity for an individual.
…they are fragments of longer stories, which is both frustrating and intriguing…
The final images are by Roelof Petrus van Wyk, in which a whole wall is dominated by large portraits of young white Afrikaners. Van Wyk aims to divorce his subjects’ unique post-apartheid Afrikaner identity from the prescribed nationalist Afrikaner view of white South Africans as a “chosen people”. Van Wyk lays bare this ideology and aims to highlight white Afrikaners’ specific, complicated history as the oppressor in South Africa, so the images refer to both dehumanising anthropological documentation and studio portraiture: the black backgrounds and sharp focus accentuate the light skin and features of the subjects so we can understand them as white, yet the glossiness of the images also makes them look like polished art photography. All the photographs are named as specific portraits, so they are afforded the personhood that the subjects of anthropological documentation generally were not.
All of the images in this exhibition are taken from larger photo essays; one does feel that they are fragments of longer stories, which is both frustrating and intriguing as they represent such a fascinatingly heterogeneous portrait of South Africa.
The Exhibition runs until 17th July
Images courtesy of the V&A