Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is Pieter Hugo's work maturing?

It’s like the tide of a highly polluted sea has fallen back, leaving behind the detritus of a defunct technological civilisation. The empty shells of computer monitors are positioned face-down and like entwined threads of seaweed are piles of tangled webs of wire cabling. The assortment of broken, chipped and weather-beaten motherboards and hard drives that are strewn haphazardly around the landscape look like they have been damaged by a violent sea that has pounded them against rocks. A broken keyboard lies half-buried in the soil, like the skeleton of a dead fish. The people who wander along this uninhabitable locale wear dirty, threadbare clothing. They are like victims of a shipwreck who, deposited on some foreign land, must learn to adapt if they are to |survive.

This scenario might be the stuff of a sci-fi maritime fictional yarn but it is real:  it is the Agbogbloshie Market in Accra, Ghana, where tons of the West’s digital waste is dumped each year in an effort to bridge the digital divide between the First and Third Worlds. The community that scrounges for a living off this dump site burns these disused objects to extract copper – a process that pollutes and destroys the natural environment. Thus, in quite an obvious way, Hugo’s series of photographs of the Agbogbloshie Market demonstrates not just the skewed relations between the West and Africa but the duplicity of Western benevolence.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Musa Nxumalo and 'Generation Disappointment"

The young photographer Musa Nxumalo (pictured above in a recent self portrait) scooped an ACT Award last week for Visuals Arts. About a month ago I happened to interview him in connection with a story I was writing about the youth – the titular Generation Disappointment. What was most interesting about my encounter with Nxumalo was that I discovered that this young photographer had with his Alternative Kidz series taken the notion of the ‘constructed’ photograph to a new level in the sense that he had played a primary role in creating the social subculture that he would photograph. Thus he wasn’t simply a participant in the alternative Rock scene in Soweto but he had actually had a hand in creating that scene. From his photographs one would not be mistaken for thinking that the subculture which he documents is a growing one, however, it is incredibly small: in fact so limited and fleeting that it is only really given life through Nxumalo’s photographs.

Nxumalo was inspired by documentaries which mapped the rise of rave culture in Manchester. He yearned to be part of a similar youth movement. When he looked around there was nothing like it that he could latch onto so he created a movement with the idea that he could document it at some later stage. In other words he conceived of a society for the purposes of documenting it. In this way Nxumalo’s construction of his photographs extends far beyond the moment he stood behind the camera lens.

In my feature story below,which was published in The Sunday Independent a few weeks back, my interest was in contextualising Nxumalo’s work within the broader sociopolitical context:

With dreads and a tattoo, Thato Woody Khumalo looks a bit out of place in the non-descript rural setting. He seems completely unaware of Musa Nxumalo’s penetrative camera lens as he gazes deeply into a pool of water in front of him. It is not a narcissistic compulsion which has him contemplating his reflection in the water but rather an enquiring stare that one imagines is compelled by the brand of confusion that grips twentysomethings attempting to come to terms with themselves and their place in the world. The barren rural setting succinctly articulates the sense of alienation that Khumalo and his band of punk-rockers experience in Joburg, in Soweto, where they are outsiders.

Nxumalo’s image of Khumalo could function as a poster for this new supposed Generation Disappointment. His contemplative stare could be read as a despondent gaze. Nevertheless his dress, demeanour and the setting suggest that Khumalo is not part of this group of young people pegged as impatient materialists disappointed by the fact that they have been unable to fast-track their way into cushy well-paid jobs.
Khumalo and the photographer Nxumalo are part of one of the counter-cultural youth movements emerging in this country. It is these rebellious voices that are foregrounding the flaws in our society and driving us towards a new status quo. The youth are like a mirror of our society. So certainly if they are despondent it is not a situation of their own making. It is an expression of the environment that has shaped them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What happens when the 'pioneers' set up artistic enclaves?

Within the next couple of days Joburg’s trendy art clique will be descending on Braamfontein, which is fast becoming the city’s new cultural centre. Brodie/Stevenson will open their doors tonight with a Pieter Hugo exhibition and on the weekend a cluster of new ‘curated’ designer shops will also start trading.  This is not a replica of the Arts on Main development but it is competition.  Adam Levy, the young property developer who has been driving this new hub, has tried to distinguish this development from Arts on Main by proposing that it is all geared towards fostering interaction with the environment. Nevertheless, as you will note in my feature on the suburb below, which I wrote for the Sunday Indy about a month ago, Levy has gone to quite extraordinary lengths to ensure his artistic enclave is populated by the selfsame people you would find at 44 Stanley or Parkhurst. He is openly resentful of the existing population in the suburb who are predominantly students – as he believes this will detract from the suburb’s upward mobility. Of course, I am excited about the emergence of this new artistic centre and appreciate the sentiment that is driving it but I think that in the arts community we really need to understand the ideas that frame these kinds of developments and be honest about their exclusionary nature.  I find it troubling that the predominantly white people who settle in Joburg’s supposedly urban wilderness are cast as pioneers, particularly when they try to conjure the suburban worlds that they have supposedly eschewed. Thus this move into the city is not really about embracing what the city is but transforming it into what is thought to be more desirable. This is not necessarily a negative compulsion; this is how cities are regenerated. My concern is that we are never honest about our motives. Here is what I wrote:

HOW YOU perceive the world often depends on the vantage point you are viewing it from. From Randlords, a new rooftop bar in Braamfontein, I can’t perceive the everyday details on the ground. My gaze is concentrated on Joburg’s inner-city skyline, across from the Mandela Bridge. Sometimes it can be liberating not to be immersed in the details. It frees you up to absorb the bigger picture. Randlords is only 22 storeys up so it is not quite in the clouds but Joburg’s inner city appears like any in the world. It looks functional, pristine and desirable. It might not be all these things yet but from the rooftop of Randlords I can’t help believing that this could all be possible.

Of course, it’s easy to conceive of the rich possibilities that this city offers when you are ensconced in a sophisticated bar that is reached via its own private lift, has a rooftop lounge with glass balustrades, designer toilets and Afrochic tables embellished with beads from around the continent. But the fact that this is the most-talked-about bar in town – with everyone claiming to have visited it and having paid the R250 entrance fee for the pleasure – is surely a sign that middle-class suburbanites are reconsidering their relationship to the city, or at least to Braamfontein.