The Weight of Narrative: Photographs of David Goldblatt
Report from… Johannesburg
David Goldblatt, boyishly youthful in all but age, chose to celebrate his eightieth birthday by holding an exhibition of his own work at the Market Photo Workshop – the school he founded in Johannesburg in 1989, with the primary aim of introducing photographic skills to young blacks disadvantaged by apartheid. The school, which has been non-racial from the start, is flourishing: a lively centre of information and debate about the visual arts, offering courses in photojournalism and documentary photography, with 150 to 200 graduates each year – and Goldblatt is flourishing wonderfully too.
In the last twenty years he has become internationally renowned: recipient of the Hasselblad, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lucie awards, his reputation has been further established by exhibitions at MoMA and Documenta, and a retrospective exhibition that toured galleries and museums around the world, as well as the publication of many books of his work.
But Goldblatt remains true to his dictum that “the arts should always be iconoclastic,” describing himself as “an unlicensed, self-appointed critic of South African society which I continue to explore with a camera.” The critical, critiquing aspect of his work is offset by its visual poetry and – most importantly for this most respectful of photographers – by his own dignifying, humanistic approach: a Goldblatt image typically achieves a balance between scorn, compassion and an artist’s delight in discovery. The weight of narrative is important in a reading of Goldblatt’s work, and the explanation is often in the titles (see the captions to images in this article). He acknowledges the influence of literary friends such as Nadine Gordimer, Barney Simon and Ivan Vladislavic, with whom he has shared projects. His own body of work is as close to literature as pictures can be.
Entitled Fale le Fale, a Sesotho phrase that translates as ‘Here and Here,’ the Workshop exhibition is modest in size but profound and far-reaching in content. It shows Goldblatt’s independence from the contemporary art world that embraces him, and from stereotypical political thinking in South Africa, past and present.
The photographs are printed small and cover a diverse range of themes, stretching from recent work back to the 1960s, with black and white hanging next to digitalised colour. Included are pictures of motorists, photographed by the young Goldblatt in his rear view mirror: a scathing depiction of white South Africans at the time, they all look grim and bad-tempered. Menu (1971) is a reflection of colonial aspirations for “English” respectability – taped onto a brick wall outside a downmarket hotel, the bill of fare offers Potage or Consommé and Baked Rice Pudding.
Among his recent work are portraits of ex-offenders, each with a detailed history of the crime – they are also at the current Venice Biennale – and triptychs, which show different aspects of a subject, extending the narrative or, as Goldblatt says, “showing what is around the corner”. Willem Vorster with friends, family, house and garden, 2009 shows the mud brick house and garden carefully created by a man who is disabled and unemployed, and as the camera takes in the harsh environment it also reveals a row of modest prefab houses in the background that are the embodiment of Vorster’s dream.
What made Goldblatt choose these particular images, I asked him. “I thought I would like a ‘conversation’ with the students of the Workshop and that it might be an idea to show work from different areas of interest rather than something strongly thematic,” he replied. “Then, as well, the spaces seemed to lend themselves to that idea. So I said to the curators, John Fleetwood and Molemo Moiloa of the Workshop, that I would like to bring together ‘bits and pieces’, things that I have never shown or printed before, together with other work. They had a strong sense of what might interest and provoke students and so, together, we chose the work.”
Asked whether he kept the format small for practical reasons, he said, “I didn’t want to overwhelm. The work needed to be not only accessible but within the grasp of students’ own printmaking possibilities. Smaller rather than larger seemed right in those spaces.”
Goldblatt’s work is usually exhibited large-scale these days. Stepping up for a close scrutiny – rather than stepping back for a long view – is a reminder of his early exhibitions, and the rather private experience of entering into a different, uncomfortable and very intense world. At Kevin Kwanele’s Takwaito Barber, Lansdowne Road, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, in the time of AIDS, 2007 is simultaneously on display at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, but in large format. The big print is a more impressive image and shows the detail better; the small version is less like an artwork, more like a human document and perhaps more poignant.
Unexpectedly this photograph makes me think of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity. Both show disparate characters in a bleached and dusty landscape under a limpid sky; each of them is differently occupied, and looking in a different direction. Both have a strange sense of stillness. And both have a common narrative that links the characters and makes sense of the composition – in Khayelitsha, the repeated AIDS symbols create the narrative. But mostly it is the clarity of light in Goldblatt’s photograph that reminds me of Piero, whose paintings are always bathed in light. In both artists, light imparts an atmosphere of reason and serenity.
Full title of Here, in 2007, Ellen Pakkies strangled her son Abie. Lavender Hill, Cape Town. 12 September 2010:
Ellen was sentenced to three years in prison suspended and 62 hours of community service. There were extenuating circumstances. Her son Abie, the youngest of three, started using tik when he was 13. He robbed Ellen and her husband of everything: money, clothes, bed linen, dishes, appliances, copper pipes and taps in their house. He smashed their home to pieces and terrorised them. Through it all, she cared for him. She wanted him to feel that he belonged somewhere. She couldn’t throw him out onto the streets, because she had come from the streets herself.
Her mother was homeless when Ellen was an infant. They moved into a backyard room in Kensington when Ellen was two and her mother got married. Ellen was four when the boys next door began molesting her, six when another neighbour, a known murderer, first raped her. Her parents drank heavily. Ellen cared for the children born to the marriage, but had no friends. By the time she was 11 she had been abducted twice by sexual predators. She was 13 when her parents allowed a known rapist to share her bed because he brought liquor into the house. She ran away. She’d had four years of primary school.
Ellen lived on the streets, eating garbage and selling her body. Her first child, conceived in rape, was born when she was 17. She married at 18. The union lasted 6 months. Her second marriage lasted 2 years, and she had two sons, Abie and his brother. She married Ontil, her husband today, when she was 28. At the time of the murder she worked at an orphanage where she was happy; the children taught her new things, like how to swim and to play, and she could help them, because she knew where they came from. Today, she helps other women with addicted children.
Exhibition continues at 2 President Street, Newtown, Johannesburg 2001 until 29 July, 2011