Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Separating Fact from Fiction: Art and Journalism via Hugo and Chiurai

Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013

 It was as a journalist that author Margie Orford stood over the body of a young girl who had been stabbed over 20 times that she  first understood, or at least observed, the rage that beats beneath the surface of our society. The language of journalism wasn’t up to the task of articulating what she could perceive and so she turned to fiction, though she has suggested that the form of reportage that she had been driving wasn’t such a leap away from the crime novels she came to write. Was she seeking the “novelistic truth” that Justin Cartwright, the South African-born UK-based author, identifies as the feature that the mask of fiction provides?

Sometimes the absence of answers can be satisfying. We expect artists to probe beneath the surface of our society, yet package their insights in a way that is palatable and marketable – and intriguing; we don’t want the bold facts overstated like an Ayanda Mabulu or Brett Murray portrait of President Jacob Zuma.
We don’t always want answers, when they can’t be easily supplied.  Mary Wafer’s quasi abstract mapping of the landscape where the Marikana tragedy took place in her exhibition, Mine, was such a body of work. In the absence of tangible clues to explain what had occurred,  she drew attention to our probing gaze and desire to get a handle on a truth or truths that the media supply and how we use them as a measure of “where we are at” – as if it is some fixed and knowable place that could even be visualised.

Does the language of art allow us to better grasp the unknown, in comparison to journalistic products which are designed to confront, reveal, what is (or should be) known?
At what point does the journalistic mode become insufficient and is it really that one dimensional?
Having worked for newspapers, Pieter Hugo knows the journalistic language well, you could even say he still works with it even though his photography is considered art and shows in galleries.
His latest exhibition, Kin, showing at Stevenson galleries in Joburg and Cape Town, is characterised by sharp images which imply that his subject matter has been thoroughly revealed or exposed in the documentary mode.

Every line on his subjects’ faces is rendered with such clarity and combined with the large scale of his prints, it is easy to believe we are bearing witness to reality. It also helps that he has selected subjects who bear physical marks of time or are marked by life; we see this in the veined, wrinkled hands of a man in Danville, 2013, an aged domestic worker, Meriam “Mary’ Tlali, who worked for the Hugo family, Daniel Richards, a young man who has tattooed his face, the portrait of Shaun Oliver, a man with a lined face and a burning cigarette hanging between his thin lips and Hugo’s pregnant partner, her body stretched by the child in her womb. These are subjects, therefore, who are moulded, scarred by life, the existences they lead – they know “reality”, are products of it.

The sharp lucidity with which Hugo renders them also makes them appear quite unreal, too real; we rarely observe people in this way, even in person. This imparts a hyperrealism that we tend to associate with figurative painting, such as Deborah Poynton’s highly detailed Baroque-esque brand that also zooms in on the unsightly minutiae of her (nude) subjects.

In this way the frailties and vulnerabilities of the subjects are enhanced or seemingly revealed, engendering the notion that the truth is there in front of us. It seems to be all about looking, not thinking.
The painterly analogy fits this oeuvre by Hugo, particularly the photographs that mimic the formula of the ubiquitous “still life” – like a vase containing flowers in the work Inside Hudson Kungu’s home Virginia. Or a plastic wrapped TV remote, ashtray and box of cigarettes on a table that allude to the habitual rituals for In Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013.