The South African photographer has a complicated place within his country’s photographic culture.
David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Mikhael Subotzy, and Zanele Muholi are the South African photographers frequently showcased in prominent venues and art festivals. In particular, Goldblatt was one of the first African photographers with a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1998. This reality has not gone unnoticed to a younger generation of photographers in South Africa, whom David Goldblatt himself has had a hand in training through the Johannesburg-based Market Photo Workshop. Many of Goldblatt’s predecessors and his own understudies take issue with the subject matter of his photographs and his documenting techniques. Now, at 87, Goldblatt, one of South Africa’s most exhibited photographers, is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France.
Goldblatt is no stranger to audiences in South Africa and this site’s readers. However, he is a bit of an anomaly to audiences in France, where the national art collection features about 60 of his works. This extensive exhibition of Goldblatt comes after the MoMA show David Goldblatt: Photographs from South Africa and 16 years after the retrospective Fifty-One Years curated by Corriane Diserens and Okwui Enwezor at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and the Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. The Pompidou show is not intended to educate audiences on South Africa’s post-apartheid histories. Instead, according to the museum’s photography curator, Karolina Ziębińska-Lewandowska, it seeks to further elevate Goldblatt’s standing and influence internationally.
Goldblatt organizes his vast photographic archive into series, themes or subject matters not restricted to a specific time or place. Reacting to and documenting events are impulses that supposedly do not animate Goldblatt and his practice. In turn, the exhibition prioritizes seeing more photographs from specific series rather than a few pictures from all of Goldblatt’s series, an approach adopted for Fifty-One Years. The gallery is divided into eight parts: “Particulars;” “On the Mines;” “Some Afrikaners;” “Joburg;” “Boksburg;” “Transported of KwaNdebele;” “Kas Maine;” and, occupying the most exhibition space, “Structures.” Each gallery features a video screen, showing Goldblatt speaking directly to a selection of the displayed photographs. Goldblatt wrote the captions and wall-text displayed.
The show does not feature any of Goldblatt’s new or unseen works. After entering the gallery, a visitor first views photographs from the series “Particulars.” These photographs, taken during the 1970s, look beyond and around people’s faces and focus on crossed hands and pierced ears. He was interested in the body language conveyed through the positioning of body parts. The display of “Particulars” at the exhibition’s onset attempts to illuminate the concerns over human condition that informed and motivated Goldblatt. It is intended to frame the ways that visitors attend to and appreciate the photographs that they are to view.
Goldblatt began to work as a photographer in the mid-1940s. His career spans South Africa’s history of legislated apartheid and 24 years of democracy. There are no anti-apartheid protests to be seen in the exhibition. In fact, the violence that marks this period of South African history is not directly visible. “On the Mines” opens with an image of the site where South African police forces shot dead miners engaged in a strike in 2012. This incident became known as the Marikana Massacre. Inside the specific gallery dedicated to the series, display boxes feature photographs of women, children, and miners taken by Goldblatt in his young adult years. The juxtaposition of the displayed photographs on the walls with some of Goldblatt’s early prints or proofs from his book projects is part of what the curator refers to as her “repetitive approach,” an attempt to show how Goldblatt returned to themes he developed before his professional career and how he “treated [these] topics in the new South Africa.”
To such end, interspersed throughout the display of “Structures,” visitors come across photographs from 2016 of a railway bridge built by the Apartheid state to enforce racial segregation, and the remnants from an unfinished building project for the Apartheid government’s white civil servants. We also see photographs of what Goldblatt refers to as “the modern student protests,” the destruction and removal of artworks deemed offensive to University of Cape Town (UCT) students. Goldblatt found highly problematic student defacement of art, as well as the administration acquiescence to remove these works contrary to the fight against apartheid. He has since withdrawn his photographic archive from UCT and will donate the collection to Yale University in the United States.
In the exhibition, Goldblatt himself does not resist chastising successive post-apartheid governments for hubris and mismanagement of money when it comes to memorializing the anti-apartheid struggle. His critique of apartheid is present but subtle, as it unfolds in retrospect images in relation to those of the democratic period. Take for example, Goldblatt’s explanation of how the apartheid state redesigned a monument built in front of Volkskas Bank so that it would not look at the Indian-owned shops across the street. There is also a photograph of a pile of shovels that symbolically refers to the labor of black miners. According to Goldblatt, the miner’s used the shovels underground to remove waste so that the actual gold mining could happen.
Ziębińska-Lewandowska emphasizes that Goldblatt does not want his works seen as a weapon in the anti-apartheid struggle. In line with such an interpretation, the exhibition fashions Goldblatt as a humanist and wanderer, similar to American documentary photographers Lewis Hines and Dorothea Lange, and the French photographer Eugène Atget. The exhibition curator was familiar with Goldblatt’s complicated place within South Africa’s photographic landscape. Nonetheless, when asked why another art exhibition on Goldblatt, she responded:
I think it is because it is a work which is especially with time… more universal. Even though his work comes from a specific place and specific aspects of this place… there is a kind of a model that can be adapted everywhere. We can have very different cultural backgrounds and we can adapt this same way of doing things, which is not necessarily the case for the Afrapix photographers which were closer to reportage photography and the documentary photography, focused on actions and events and not on state of things.
Afrapix consisted of a mix-raced group of photographers who, starting in the 1980s until 1991, documented daily life conditions and protest movements in South Africa and Southern Africa, more broadly speaking. Afrapix sold gathered photographs to international news organizations, as well as published them in local outlets like trade union publications. One of Afrapix’s founding members, Omar Badsha, has been an outspoken critic of Goldblatt efforts to de-politicize his career. In a recent documentary about Goldblatt’s life and work, Badsha remarked unflatteringly: “David’s work never challenged the state. David’s work doesn’t question the system of racism in [South Africa], because if you question it, there is no difference between the Afrikaner and English-speaking South Africans.” For Badsha, Goldblatt is a “white liberal,” a derisive term.
The unease over Goldblatt has gone further than some non-white photographers calling him a liberal. When Goldblatt is spoken about within international arenas, it is almost as if he is no longer a white South African or even African, but suddenly a white person without a nationality. Goldblatt’s photographs and their repeated exhibition in formulations like the Pompidou show are representative of the highly constructed views that continue to inform global curatorial understandings of what photographs of apartheid and the post-apartheid period should look like. Easily dismissed are the specificities of South Africa’s racial history and the nuanced, and perhaps even stressful and uncomfortable, photographic experiences of Goldblatt’s subjects.
Unlike some of his contemporaries and generations of photographers that followed after him, Goldblatt published widely in the international press and in book formats before the end of apartheid, thereby making his images formative to the western world’s imagination of apartheid and the anti-apartheid struggle. Publishing his pictures sometimes required violating cultural boycotts or working with organizations associated with apartheid.
In the case of Goldblatt, whose photographs are of great commercial value and held within private collections, it was possible for the Pompidou in concert with Goldblatt’s gallery representation, Goodman Gallery in South Africa, to reprint lost or badly aged photographs. Visitors of the Pompidou show are left to rely on many of these reprinted photographs to consider what his photographed subjects would have thought about his presence within their homes, on their commute, or within their work spaces like the mines.
Viewers familiar with South Africa’s history, might find it discomfiting how the exhibition frames as seamless, Goldblatt’s movements through time and space. It shies away from the messiness of the political, thereby failing to recognize that it is sometimes from within the space of disputes where there is an unexplored, and often suppressed, beauty and achievement. And for these reasons, the exhibition left this visitor wondering: why do we need another Goldblatt show at a prominent museum?
* David Goldblatt is on view until May 7, 2018 at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France.