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Art, Culture, Reality
Karoo, Landscape © Alain Willaume, Tendance Floue 2012

Pictures of Land

by Dorothy Mhone / 21.12.2012

I walked through the astro-turfed entrance of the old Bus Factory in Newtown, analysing the public images that were presented as part of the Show Us Our Land, the public participation element of the Market Photo Workshop’s Social Landscape project. All mounted on Outsurance-type marketing boards propped up on A-frames, the images featured the expected landscapes. There were close ups of tree stumps and happy people in a rural area photographed with a dog that was still alive. All this got me thinking. ‘Why am I standing on fake grass looking at a representation of a real issue?’ Then: ‘Who’s talking and what difference is he/she trying to make?’ And finally: ‘Are these people listening because they feel strongly about the issue or because they are (trying) to get paid to do so?’ The road was closed and was kept that way by policemen who told us where to park. ‘Fuck!’ I thought, this is serious, they don’t even do that for Fashion Week and Mercedes Benz can definitely pay for it. Later on I thought that maybe they just didn’t want a riot and wanted everyone to be contained by the men in uniform. The seemingly nameless panel then had discussions in which they were the only ones who discussed. They spoke a lot. That wouldn’t be a problem if you could’ve actually heard them, or if there was coffee and cocaine served every thirty minutes. Yes, that is indeed how much they talked. The issue, that they had so much to say about was ‘land’.

“Land?” You ask. “Why land?” Land is the apparent underlying reason for all the service delivery protests that have escalated over the last six years. Yes, land. I also thought it was the lack of service delivery, people having to endure the smell of their trash, their faeces and urine, no running water, the fact that the schools are further than walking distance (so much so that the teachers don’t even show up), the fact that a single municipal complaint takes more than a year to resolve. Obviously people will protest. Are these not the reasons why they protest, and get shot by men in the same uniforms that have shut down the whole road, protecting this exhibition?

I’m surrounded by people with ‘Market Photo Workshop’ written on their T-shirts, walking back and forth in a hurry; faux fashionistas tugging at their clothes every now and then; older men in suits, or chinos and smart shirts and then there were a whole bunch of people who seemed to be photoshopped into this scene. Young and rowdy, white girls who looked like they should’ve been ordering frappucinos in trendy Parkhurst, women that looked like school teachers and men that could easily pass as taxi drivers. As the time went by and discussions went on, more faux fashionistas, hippies and older trendy men and women poured in. The free drinks got served (you could only have a maximum of four), but the bar was closed as soon as someone had to speak. Again. Naturally, the crowd didn’t approve, the exhibition had not officially opened and everyone needed to hear about the issues first; about what the project aimed to do and then we were forced to watch an award ceremony. A chubby guy shouted, “booo!”

An hour and a half later, the exhibition finally opened.

After waiting for so long to see the exhibition and having so much said about the issues around it, I expected the photography to either be intensely fucking graphic, or at least exciting. All of a sudden I wanted my eyes to bleed, I wanted to see something I’d never seen before, I wanted to end up peeing in my pants, I wanted to be so inspired that I’d talk about this everyday for six weeks! It was not going to happen. My level of disappointment was about as high as Lindsay Lohan on her birthday.

Zanele Muholi really pissed me off, she states: “Black women and gender politics were still and still are the major fabric of the social landscape in South Africa.” Yes, part of the major fabric, not the major fabric entirely. Zanele Muholi doesn’t prove that by photographing the annual Reed Dance (uMkhosi woMhlanga) in which 15000 young women took part, but she doesn’t show us that, that Reed Dance is a tourist attraction. Those girls sing, dance and smile away, the ceremony gets featured on Ukhozi-FM’s events page and we’ve all seen breasts before. Her staged photographs in the rest of her body of work also don’t speak to me about the issues of “black women and gender politics”. Sure, the compromise of their dignity is part of the deal but they have loads more of it when the ceremony and procedure is complete. Women see gynaecologists, we get used to the idea of someone sticking something up our vaginas, they only have to do it once a year. I would have also liked to dance around without a bra and a mini skirt with beaded fringing to show that I was a virgin, ironically. Also, taking pretty portraits of trans-gender people isn’t exactly heartbreaking and the problem of homosexual hate crimes is more intense than a photo of a deceased lesbian in a coffin. How about fading that photo into a collage of her police report photographs, by all means use photoshop to get the point across. Her staged photographs in the rest of her body of work also don’t speak to me about anything other than women (who could actually be heterosexual) are willing to get naked and cuddle on a bed for you.

Pieter Hugo is of course, really good at taking ‘oh my fucking god!’ style photographs. Now here’s a person who’s on the scene. His collection for the exhibition was more landscape than social, this time around, although he did photograph a miner who isn’t easy on the eye at all. He also photographed dinner tables of mine workers with a vanitas-themed edge and mine dumps in Benoni, which were once famous for being higher than the Egyptian pyramids.

I got annoyed by Thabiso Sekgala’s tendency to shoot like Scott Schuman/The Sartorialist and his statement: “By 1899 the farms around Brits area were owned by blacks”. ‘Blacks’, that were moved during the Native Land Act almost a hundred years ago. He seems to feel the severity of the issue but doesn’t care to mention the Bakwena-Ba-Magopa with more respect, like ‘mainly Tswana people’ or even ‘black people’ these people have personality, I especially like hearing them say,”Garunkuwa”. However I had a look at his compositions instead of his subjects and they were interesting, whether they happened by chance or not.

Santu Mofokeng targeted the land in the Karoo, like Shell did, but with a camera. Everyday life and Karoo landscapes were juxtaposed between photographs of resistance to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) complete with protests and anti-fracking workshops.

Cedric Nunn photographed ruins of farmsteads and barracks occupied by the British, soil erosion and where the Ndhlambe’s Great Kraal used to be in the Cape, all of which I find irrelevant in present day.

Not one second passed that I forgot how long I had to wait to see this exhibition, at least until I saw Jo Ractliffe’s work, which was somewhat an extension of her fascination with Angola and the San veterans who participated in the Border War, who are now living in Kimberley. These San people speak Portuguese instead of furious tongue clicking dialect, which adds to the fascination about their displacement and belonging. The photographs showed how they live in informal homes, but I kept asking myself why there was so much distance between the photographer and the scene, why the social aspect was treated like landscape, perhaps she really took the concept of ‘Social Landscape’ to new lengths, or perhaps she wanted to be polite, leaving us wondering at the same time. Jo Ractliffe played with my eyes, as I stood there squinting and wondering what the San people looked like from the front, maybe that had something to do with their lost identity, either way I appreciated it.

As for Alain Willaume, he’s a genius. He as well, photographed the Karoo. As a French photographer he captured the Karoo only by suggesting the issue of fracking in the region. His photographs were taken while the wind blew the dust, capturing an essence of impending doom (see opening image). Photographs that intimate that people living in the area know that one day their land and lives will be destroyed by modern ideas and ruthless capital. As if the dust and wind was a metaphor for the anxiety that is also spreading and uncontrollable. Alain Willaume knows how to tackle an issue, as he states: “The construction site of the telescopic radio MeerKAT, the other aspect of my mission, remains nothing more than a vast ‘dust storm’ to which I was categorically refuse access by the highest authorities”.

We want to talk about land and how people interact with it, but we don’t want to give anyone the reality. We don’t want to let them take the truth with a piece of grit. Ractliffe suggested displacement and abandonment in a time that is relevant, Willaume evoked fear and anxiety, Mofokeng expressed protest and resistance. Pieter Hugo, ennui and dislocation, perhaps? The reaction to what the others showed is: ‘Who cares?’

And this is an issue that underpins most of South Africa’s social and political woes. Land. But many won’t connect the dots. I wonder to myself if this exhibition will get young people of Johannesburg talking about the land issue and finding new ways to deal with it? Alas, I think the answer is no. The youth, in this city have no time for matters that don’t affect them tangibly in their everyday lives. If something is important enough, they find out about it through Twitter after retweeting Wis Khalifa and Kim Kardashian.

As for these wounds, we leave them for the government to mend. And you know how that goes… we can riot, protest and get shot or we can wait for the next election to be bribed into voting for whoever promises, again to ‘listen’ and ‘deliver on’ the people’s issues.

Go have a look for yourself, the exhibition runs until March 2013, which is the 100 year anniversary of something we all want to remember, The Natives Land Act.

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