04 February 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Pictures past and present

The image “Children on the borders between Fietas and Mayfair “, taken by photographer David Goldblatt in 1952, is unaffected and direct. They are playing on the street - but not together. One group of children is white. The other group is black. You sense in their smiles that they would like to play together, are just about to… But this is South Africa in the 1950’s. Racial segregation laws forbid it. The outstretched hand of a child of about three restrains her even smaller sister from joining in the other group’s game. It’s a strangely guilty image.

This is the first photograph in an exhibition entitled “South African Photography 1950 - 2010”. The exhibition, curated by Dr. Ralf Seippel, opened at the Pretoria Art Museum, where it runs until 24 April 2011. It is described as an “historic photographic overview of South African culture and lifestyle from the 1950′s to the present day”. As such, the exhibition is divided chronologically into three main time periods;  1950-1976 Apartheid, 1976-1994 Struggle and 1994-2010 Freedom.

It’s made up of mainly black and white images taken by a range of South African photographers, including Bonile Bam, Jodi Bieber, Pierre Crocquet, David Goldblatt, Bob Gosani, George Hallett, Alf Kumalo, Ranjith Kally, Peter Magubane, Gideon Mendel, Santu Mofokeng, G.R. Naidoo, Cedric Nunn, Mikhael Subotzky, Andrew Tshabangu, Paul Weinberg and Gille de Vlieg, as well as photographers from Drum Magazine whose names were not recorded.

Each image is geographically, socially, politically and morally significant. Very many of them are beautiful to look at - but it is often a terrible beauty - documenting as they do the ugliness of apartheid as well as the early days of freedom and democracy which presented the country with a new set of challenges.

The photos from the 50s and 60s are political and cultural inscriptions of the time. They tell stories of segregation and defiance, but also of urban sophistication. There are images of the emerging jazz culture (a fantastic one of Hugh Masekela, taken by Alf Khumalo in Sophiatown in 1956). There are also pictures of routine humiliation- both recorded and implied - that was just as much part of everyday life as Masekela’s music.

A note on one image entitled “Shift boss with this ‘piccanin’ underground at the Randfontein Estates Gold Mine” (1965) by David Goldblatt is qualified with this personal recollection: “For the shift boss, the young man carried measuring instruments, a bottle of tea, a “pheumo” jacket, for me - at the insistence of the shift boss - he carried my tripod.”

Images from the 80s and 90s highlight brutal murders, demonstrations, violence and pain, such as a dying Hector Pieterson by Sam Nzima. Another image, “One woman protests as soldiers occupying her township roll by in large, armoured military vehicles”, taken in Soweto in 1985 by Paul Weinburg, is an eloquent reminder of the absurdity of the apartheid system, but also of its power.

Finally, the work by photographers taken in the 21st century shows a South Africa full of hopeful and painful contradictions - like the image a prisoner voting for the first time - as well as introspective images probing identity, development, the realities of a free South Africa.

While the project is an important historic and aesthetic exercise - and worth seeing for that reason alone - many of the images are strangely familiar; people I recognise and streets I’ve walked on. But they are made new as the present is layered with the past, revealing a core of humanness that is so easy miss.

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