Goldblatt and the unassailable dignity of viewpoint

A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.

A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.

Curating an exhibition of as important an icon in South African visual art as David Goldblatt might sound like a simple task, from the outset: behind the lens and darling of galleries all over the world for close to seven decades, Goldblatt needs no formal introduction to frequent gallery visitors. His work remains astonishing, in its wryness, its sense of wonder and its lack of crude judgment. It’s intellectually and politically sexy, never stooping to the crudeness of taking sides. But, truth be told, we’ve seen it often, in a range of exhibiting contexts, in books, all over the world.

So, curator Neil Dundas needs to be very specifically singled out and celebrated in this extraordinary exhibition which offers a fresh sheen on Goldblatt’s important and magnificent oeuvre, in a way that will challenge you, in the gallery, to relook and be seduced all over again by the work. Brooking everything under the notion of values, and playing with what scale does to the consumption of a photographic work, Dundas skilfully blends historical narrative with humour, beauty with tragedy, leaving you with a richer understanding of Goldblatt’s work and his presence in the South African story.

As you emerge at the top of the gallery’s staircase, you are hit in the solar plexus and the heart, simultaneously, with three large scale photographs that confront value head on. There’s a group of South African leaders at Parliament’s Senate in the centre; a view onto the degradation of Freedom Park, a post-apartheid dream which has been thwarted on the left; and a photograph drawing from within apartheid’s belief system on the right. They’re like three exclamation marks of sound that grab you by the eyes and the memory and don’t let go. None of them enable you to look with bias. Each of them is about very specific ideological perspectives. And each of them leaves you with great empathy of the situation captured.

But the exhibition is very far from being monolithic or predictable. Around the central well of the gallery are numerous photographs from different projects and focuses of Goldblatt’s over the years. They’re important photographs, printed up like the ‘snaps’ that were de rigueur in the sixties and seventies: small square formats, black and white, with a white border around them. Cleanly framed, they are as legible and potent visually as they would be printed up enormous, but the different scale pushes something new into the mix which makes you read them with a nostalgic sensibility that doesn’t undermine their vitality or their potent sense of moment.

Further to that, this rich and beautiful showcasing of Goldblatt’s work gives presence to Goldblatt’s voice in reflecting the thinking behind making these photographs, behind the Transkei in the 1970s or Gammaskloof in the 1960s. We see powerful excerpts from Goldblatt’s series on Boksburg, on the Transported of Kwandebele, of asbestos mining, of people of the plots of Randfontein in the early 1960s … a photograph commemorating some of apartheid South Africa’s most iconic sculptures neighbours one documenting the dethroning of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, at the campus of the University of Cape Town, earlier this year. The juxtapositions make your head spin with their wildness and their dignity.

One of the primary delights of Goldblatt’s work is how his titles are embedded in so much. The images take your eye and your head into the deep interstices of a situation. You notice many things that make your blood pressure soar, or bring tears to your eyes, but then you focus on the mother and child; the girl at a bus stop; the real person who is never inconsequential, but might be compositionally shadowed, that gives the work its name.

Victoria Cobokana is one of the more potent and astute essays on Aids prevalence that you might ever see. Goldblatt’s portrait of this woman with her two small children in the home of her employer in 1999 resonates with the clear values in a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child: in terms of colour and light and simplicity. Without stooping to gimmickry or self-conscious smartness, it’s a portrait which lends this woman and her little family enormous, overpowering dignity. But don’t go away from the work until you have read its caption.

The Pursuit of Values is more than just another retrospective of one of South Africa’s most important photographers: It’s an exhibition which speaks articulately of the unassailable dignity of viewpoint and the beauty inherent in every single situation. What a way for the Standard Bank Gallery to end 2016.

  • The Pursuit of Values, photographs by David Goldblatt is curated by Neil Dundas and is on show at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until December 5. Visit standardbankarts.co.za or call 011 631 4467.
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