IT’S THE SILENCE that grabs you first. And the gaze of the sitters. And then you notice the truncated quality. Everyone is submerged in cold, dark water. But it is the silence that holds your heart in thrall, as you walk through this astonishing selection of photographs from Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World, a project which has occupied this South African-born photographer’s emotional and aesthetic focus for the past 10 years.
This is more than an exhibition. It’s a gesture in the name of what is happening to our planet under the relentlessness of global warming: world-wide floods. Since 2007, Mendel has been travelling all over the world, from Nigeria and Thailand to Australia and the United Kingdom, America and France, Brazil and Bangladesh, taking photographs of the devastation left by flooding.
But this is not documentation in any bald way with an environmental set of boxes to tick at hand, or a great big glossy budget. It’s a deep, achingly human gesture. The images focus on the lives of the people it has touched. And in doing so, you, in the gallery, get to understand the horror of the situation not by evaluating the economic damage, not by looking at the vast implications going forward, not by gazing into images which sensationally cast unleashed flood gates at you with torrents of water boiling down, evoking Armageddon, but by looking at the eyes of the people in the photographs.
They are first world country people and people eking out a living at the bottom end of the world’s economy. They are people with the wherewithal to wear diving suits and Wellington boots to protect their bodies from the rank water in which their furniture floats, and people without these things. People alone, and people with their loved ones. Old, young, black, white. It doesn’t matter: the look in their eyes is the same. One that says they have lost everything.
The project collectively embraces four different focuses. There are conventional images of waterlogged landscapes, the portraits of the flood victims, images that document the waterline inside domestic environments and photographs that peer through water damage at the intimate mementos of ordinary people. The series interject one another with the sense of thoughtfulness and empathy characteristic of Mendel’s oeuvre.
Here is a photograph of a photograph of a child, the texture of the photographic paper bloated and discoloured beyond recognition, just a little chubby hand on one side of a great big stain, indicating the loved photograph that once was. There is a couple, their arms around each other, as they stand in what was possibly their lounge. The water is above their waist level. And the horror of now having nothing, sits like a massive exclamation in this silent wateriness. There are no tears. Just blank horror.
In another image, two young Muslim women stand, hijab in place, the world around them like a stage set. It gives you a jolt when you realise that the torn environment, the strong setting in which you see them, is a byproduct of the flood waters. And another jolt when you lower your eyes to acknowledge the flat line of browning water that hides their legs.
The body of displayed work, which comprises photographs from each of the different components of the project as well as a 39-minute-long looped video which you will struggle to pull yourself from, opens up a collective understanding of human values. As part of this species, we like to acquire things. We take ownership of them. We indulge in a sense of our own importance. And yet, in the wake of weather of this nature, we are all the same. It’s a great leveller. An irrevocable one.
Photography, by its nature stands in the oft rickety breach between art and documentation and that breach is very clear in this exhibition. But you do not emerge from it with a sense of aesthetic victory. You emerge with a sense of awareness. And with one of having touched the fabric of what makes life precious on this planet.
The exhibition segues with that of Masixole Feni’s Drain on our Dignity, a body of work for which the young photojournalist was awarded the 2015 Ernest Cole Award, which is on display in the museum’s upstairs gallery. While Feni’s work represents the indignity of broken and ill-functioning sanitation and sewage systems in areas close to Cape Town, and offers a Jacana Books-published publication containing these images, the energy of the two bodies of work jostle with one another.
You leave Feni’s collection oddly able to shut out the sadness you have seen in the images because they resonate like conventional media images. But with Mendel’s you cannot close the door to that silence. That sense of bewilderment. That loss. Because they resonate like art.
- Drowning World by Gideon Mendel is at the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein, until February 15, 2018. Visit https://www.wits.ac.za/wam/ or call 011 717 1365.
- Masixole Feni hosts a walkabout of his exhibition on October 28 at midday. Drain on our Dignity is also on show in the museum until February 2018; the publication of his work is on sale for R250.