thu 27/02/2020

Photo Gallery: Figures and Fiction - Contemporary South African Photography, V&A | reviews, news & interviews

Photo Gallery: Figures and Fiction - Contemporary South African Photography, V&A

Photo Gallery: Figures and Fiction - Contemporary South African Photography, V&A

An exhibition of the country's vibrant photographic culture post-apartheid

For her series Real Beauty (see main picture) Jodi Bieber photographed a diverse range of South African women in their own homes, asking them to project their own personalities and fantasies into the photograph. The results can appear uncomfortably voyeuristic. There’s a big fantasy element, too, in Kudzanai Chiurai’s humorous series The Black President. He creates an imaginary cabinet with such figures as the Minister of Finance (image 1), who poses in a long fur coat and bling.

We’re in the realm of gritty realism with Pieter’s Hugo’s image of a South African family on the margins. His arresting portrait captures a poor white couple (image 2) seated on a shabby car seat in their home. The man grips his prosthetic leg, while the woman tenderly holds a black infant; whilst an image from renowned documentary photographer David Goldblatt shows a bird’s-eye view of a displaced mass of sleeping bodies huddled on the floor of a church hall (image 6). They represent just some of the thousands of black Zimbabweans who fled Mugabe’s brutal regime, but were then forced to seek sanctuary from xenophobic attacks on the streets of Johannesburg.

Although South African himself, Guy Tillim is the odd one out here, for the work chosen for this exhibition isn't of home turf. Instead we have images from his series Petros Village, which documents famine-struck villages in Malawi. But Tillim has chosen not to depict images of starvation, instead focusing his lens on human relationships (image 4) and seeking to convey his subjects’ sense of dignity.

Relative newcomer Zanele Muholi addresses issues of sexual and gender identity (images 3 and 10), allowing her subjects to dress up for the camera. Dressing up is also a theme in Zwelethu Mthethwa’s series The Brave Ones (image 5): Zulu boys and men wear pink or tartan skirts, white shirts, bow ties, rugby socks and tribal hats in a spectacle usually reserved for an annual religious festival.

Graeme Williams travelled to over 100 towns around the country to capture marginalised communities in his The Edge of Town series (image 7). Using only early morning or evening light to create long shadows and vivid colours, he injects scenes of ordinary interactions with a vibrant beauty.

Terry Kurgan takes pictures of other photographers, the street photographers (image 8) who snap portraits of passers-by in Joubert Park, one of the few green spaces in inner-city Johannesburg. These informal, relaxed portraits are very different to that of Roelof Petrus van Wyk's series of Young Afrikaners (image 9). Van Wyk positions his sitters, descendents of the original Dutch settlers, in a formal head-and-shoulders pose against a black backdrop. These are reminiscent of traditional portraiture of the Dutch golden age, and yet they slyly subvert tradition as his subjects are seen facing an unconventional direction.

Click an image to enter the gallery


  1. Kudzanai Chiurai, from the series The Black President, courtesy of the artist and the Goodman Gallery
  2. Pieter Hugo, Messina/Musina Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa 2006 © Pieter Hugo, courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town and Yossi Milo, New York
  3. Zanele Muholi, Martin Machapa, 2006 © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town
  4. Guy Tillim, from the series Petros Village © Guy Tillim, courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town
  5. Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled, from the series The Brave Ones, courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
  6. David Goldblatt, Zimbabwe Refugees Taking Shelter in the Central Methodist Church, courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery
  7. Graeme Williams, Springfontein, 2006, from the series The Edge of Town © Graeme Williams
  8. Terry Kurgan, Santos Cossa, 2004, courtesy of the artist
  9. Roelof Petrus van Wyk, from the series Young Afrikaners – A Self Portrait, courtesy of the artist
  10. Zanele Muholi, Tumi Mokgosi, Yoeville, Johannesburg, 2006 © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

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