The Pick - Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

April 21, 2011

Credit: Untitled (from The Brave Ones series)/Zwelethu Mthethwa/Jack Shainman Gallery

Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Photography has seldom been "innocent" in South Africa. The ethnographic tradition attempted to capture and police the differences between races and "tribes". The campaign against apartheid generated a deluge of documentary material often characterised by small black-and-white images and the ideal of bearing witness.

This powerful exhibition, which runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 17 July, brings together work from the period 2000-10 by 17 photographers living in South Africa. Some of the most interesting is consciously designed to address, mock and undermine the country's complex and often painful visual heritage.

Some participants deliberately set out to celebrate groups that were once hidden but are now "out there". Sabelo Mlangeni shows us the transvestites posing as Country Girls; Zanele Muholi, the sheer variety of stylish black lesbians. Others are cheerfully satirical. Kudzanai Chiurai's Black President series depicts ministers in front of flock wallpaper, weighed down with fur coats, medals, bling or, in one case, three volumes of a DIY encyclopedia of popular mechanics.

Some of the most compelling pictures come from photographers who have ventured beyond the borders of South Africa. In Ghana, Pieter Hugo found a boy in a Sun City T-shirt on a toxic waste dump and a wild honey collector with a black bin bag over his head. Even more extraordinary is the traditional medicine-seller with a chained hyena standing beneath a Nigerian flyover.

Just as disquieting are the huge naked head-and-shoulder portraits, full face and in profile against a black background, of Roelof Petrus van Wyk's own "tribe" of young Afrikaners, powerful even in their vulnerability. Jodi Bieber got women to pose for her in their underwear in their own homes. The result is either a celebration of the "real beauty" advertisers never allow us to see or yet another demonstration of the reality television principle that there's no limit to the lengths people will go to humiliate themselves.

In a society where who got to define whom was long crucial, this exhibition shows us many people on display and loudly asserting their identities. Yet other photographers quietly continue to document squalor and inequality. Mikhael Subotzky records the black security guards living in their "Wendy houses" outside expensive mansions; Santu Mofokeng, the "child-headed households" ravaged by Aids; Jo Ratcliffe, a collapsing shanty town on the border with Angola.

Graeme Williams, meanwhile, presents enigmatic street scenes - a boy stands in a phone booth while a woman with a baby raises her arm in triumph behind him - and challenges us to make sense of them. Confusing, exhilarating and often disturbing, Figures & Fictions amply exemplifies what Martin Barnes, senior curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert, calls "the very vibrant visual culture in today's South Africa".

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