South Africa’s landscape is layered with history and filled with residues – even dried reservoirs – of great masses of blood spilled in battle – as is virtually every other place in the world that has been lost and gained, caught in tussles and fought over. Photographer Francki Burger has embarked, in her current exhibition, mooted Battlefields in a thoughtful and subtle project that considers the sites of South African battles and the archival volume of material and memories that inform selected spots.
On paper, it’s a remarkable project. In a broader context of experimental photographers over the last couple of years, given the availability of the technology, it’s not unique. Our battle sites, neglected though they may be administratively or in their sense of upkeep and beautification, remain points of huge fascination for many creative or history-savvy people. Indeed, the layering of images, given digital technology is something that many artists are playing with.
So, what gives this exhibition its edge? Why should you visit it? In a word, one set of images: Burger’s diptych, which faces you as you enter the space: Isandlwana I and Isandlwana II: of her body of 17 works, these are unequivocally the most successful and engaging. Striations lend the ostensibly quiet landscapes, one containing a cairn of stones, texture, but look more carefully and these are strands of tough African grass. Or are they? Perhaps these lines which so bruise and characterise the two images of the site of South Africa’s most brutal wars, are scratches on historical negatives or the skeletal gestures of dead soldiers. Either way, you walk away from both those images with a sense of satisfaction. The concept informing the work and its visual impact lie comfortably hand in hand.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the other works on show here: while sometimes the subtlety is so nuanced, it is invisible and leaves the image unforgivably inscrutable, drab even; in other works, the play and layering of images is too bold, leaving the engagement with historical ghosts too obvious and lacking mystery. And there’s a dreadful bubble in one of the works, a casualty of faulty framing that shouldn’t have a place in a professional gallery, no matter the quality of the rest of the work: the bubble pokes you in the eye and doesn’t allow you to see the work unsullied by its presence.
A project of this nature should knock your socks off and frighten your next footstep into trepidation and concern as to what may lie, historically in the folds and interstices of earth below it. For that to happen, the works should be uniformly balanced in that gracious and oft elusive level of tonal, contextual and historical delicacy. In this show, it isn’t.
- Francki Burger’s exhibition Battlefields is on show at Speke gallery (downstairs from Circa) in Rosebank until June 6. circaonjellicoe.co.za