Where’ve all the photo budgets gone?

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NO pic, no crit.

HERE’S THE SCENARIO. There’s a festival of theatre happening in a city. Many productions to see. Some new, some tested. There’s nothing quite like a platform for new theatre ideas to flex their proverbial wings and try out their thinking on a new audience. There’s also nothing quite like a production which enjoys a strong and positive critical response. Hell, even negative critical response, should be of value. But what has happened to the cherished position of the arts photographer? Nary to be felt on opening nights any longer is that frisson of self-importance that the arts photographer exudes when she or he alone is the only person who can legitimately go click-click throughout a show.

A festival of theatre is happening in a venue. The publicist sends mugshots of the practitioners to the media at large. There are no production photographs. Is it not within the festival organiser’s priorities to budget for a festival photographer? And if this is the case, should a critique be published online without the courtesy of a picture of the production? Is that not like a description of a product that you’re trying to market with words alone? Should a review be premised with the image constructed for the programme? Would anyone read a review that has no illustration? Methinks perhaps not.

It’s similar to the old philosophical chestnut: if a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one to hear it, does it make a noise? If a show is marketed with no production pics, does anyone in the industry or in potential audiences give a flying fig about it, or will they read further than the pictureless state?

A review in the strictest sense is not a piece of fluffy marketing, which should be allowed to easily slip under the mantle of marketing material, with the logo headlining it. A review in the strictest sense should be the handle the public can access – if they respect the reviewer’s opinion enough. And it should be able to stand its ground with an image referencing the show under scrutiny.

Photography came into common technological parlance some 120 years ago. The camera, its accompanying technology and the guy pressing the button became an event and a performance in its own right, and the novelty of being photographed in early modernism were simply remarkable.

Time passed and the technology continued to grow and proliferate. Photography became a revered medium in its own right, and the professional photographer was able to teeter viably between being a member of the media and an artist. He or she earned respect, credibility; hosted exhibitions and had work published in glossy gorgeous books.

The arts photographer became a specialisation all of its own, and simply extraordinary images became the domain of South African photographers of the ilk of Suzy Bernstein, John Hogg, John Hodgkiss, Ruphin Coudyzer, Dex Goodman, to name but a few. It was a specialisation that enabled the creative juices and skills of dancers, performers and photographers to be intertwined, the one enhancing the other.

And then, things started dwindling. The technology became so sophisticated that it crept into everyone’s cell phone as an automatic bit of extra software. And hey, presto! The whole world, no matter how inarticulate or visually ordinary they are, can be a photographer. Social media is like a cancer fraught with appalling photographs of everything from twee kitties to meals about to be eaten, but production pictures? Not a sausage. Is this something that young performers don’t understand in their education or a box that goes unticked by festival organisers for monetary reasons? The mystery remains.

In the past several months, I have been subject to sitting through productions that clearly do not believe it to be of sufficient importance to include professional designers — be they sound engineers, costumiers or production designers – on their production credits. I have seen productions that feel they can strip music down to its bare necessities and toss out a couple of chords played by three instruments, pretending to be a full orchestra. I have seen people who have attempted to be the performer, the producer, the director and the marketer of their own work. And now, we see production picture-less shows expecting reviews. What happens next? Will these performers/directors/producers also become their own critics?

Of course, it’s all about money. But are we cutting our proverbial noses off and making ourselves less functional and scarily ugly in the process, by not respecting the work of the professionals who support the theatre industry? My View will regrettably not be hosting reviews of shows that do not offer production pics.

 

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Whatever shall we tell our children?

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YOU might not like me when I’m angry. Hulk Habib by Hasan and Husain Essop. Lightjet C-print on archival paper.

COMIC HEROES HAVE, since they were first thought up and drawn in the late 1930s, had a very particular place in a child’s values. The values of a white child, that is. Why? Because these great and noble chaps who don cloaks and masks or turn green with self-righteous rage, in the name of the underdog, are all white, like the hypothetical kid in question. What this means to a child who is not white is so exclusionary, it causes all of this world’s values to crumple. Twin artists Hasan and Husain Essop have the temerity and sense of style and purpose, to take this on, directly.

Once you are gripped in the gaze of a Muslim Batman, Spiderman and Incredible Hulk, all resistance crumbles in this potent exhibition of constructed photographs engaging, in the Essops’ inimitable directness, with the complexity of being Muslim in the contemporary world.

Along the lines of Pieter Hugo’s approach in his Nollywood series of 2009, the Essop twins engage a political reality which has become dangerously clichéd in the wake of 9/11 and the thrust of hysterical Islamophobia. Like Hugo’s work, the Essops’ images are all posed: these are not press images but art, confronting bias from within.

And the result by and large will shift your equilibrium.

A young Muslim man kneels on a beach strewn with thick fleshy bits of kelp and lots of discarded empty plastic bottles. He cradles a child’s doll in his arms. As you look at it, you experience a double take. This is a reference to a 2015 press photograph of the drowned Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, on a beach in Turkey. It went viral, presenting a face of xenophobia that was about a lot more and a lot less than what the hateful rhetoric was espousing. It’s an image which grabs you by the throat and stifles your breath. Before being a refugee, this young man was a daddy.

The portraits of the three Marvel comic superheroes, however, dominate the space of the gallery’s main display area with a quiet violence. It may make you think of how children’s heroes need a cultural makeover, giving children who are not white access to heroes who look like them.

It may frighten you: the unflinching gaze of Spiderman in his keffiyeh, the Hulk with a taqiyah and Batman with Arabic words cast across his mask, depending on who you are, are confrontational. The potency of these characters in a Muslim framework is explosive and profound, while it’s easily digestible and direct. And the litany of reflection on the values of children – the ones who hold the superheroes in thrall – resonates through your head.

Also in the gallery’s main space, there is an installation. A little dinghy. Some baby clothes strewn on the floor. Two poles or oars, with the emblem of the Syrian flag. “Are we there yet?” is emblazoned on one little crumpled t-shirt, a clichéd reflection on children’s classic impatience in road trips, which has been turned tragically upside down, reflecting the terror of refugees travelling to a new world which may or may not accept them.

Other works, such as the single channel HD video Refuge, articulately place you, the beholder, in a pilgrim-like situation. Many people seem to surround you. The atmosphere is peaceful yet threatening by the very quantity of people in the frame. They move gently forward. You feel smothered.

There’s a “No Muslims” and a “Muslims Only” sign punctuating the show, as well as a flag printed in a typeface redolent of Arabic, but English in its proclamation that Islam doesn’t kill, people do. In another image, a beheading is imminent. These much more obvious engagements with the values of the show tend to weaken the show’s thrust with their unambiguous confrontation of dangerously shallow prejudice and cliché.

It is the works which force you beyond the stereotypes and into the heart of a young parent or child who has hate shoved into his or her face because of his or her culture and origins that will leave you shell-shocked and ashamed of this world’s values.

  • Refuge by Hasan and Husain Essop is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg until August 19. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com
  • For a commentary on the iconic nature of contemporary political photographs, read this column by Geoff Sifrin.

Our messy world in a clean bromide

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MADAM, please: Michael Meyersfeld’s ‘The Epidemic of Shame’.

THE SEVENTEEN PRISTINE photographic images by Michael Meyersfeld that comprise his current exhibition, Adaptation would have given French theorist Roland Barthes a run for his money in how they extrapolate on the rhetoric of the world in which we live today. Barthes wrote with a scalpel-like language through photographs, demonstrating how they illustrate the world and answer questions, how they encapsulate subtleties. In Barthes’s absence, however, and without too much wordage, these beautifully crafted black and white photographs are everything that the notion of fine art photography is all about.

They’re printed – on both backlit Duratrans film and fibre-based silver bromide – with a clarity that resonates boldly in your head. With utterly black blacks and completely white whites and all the greys in between focused with precision and delicacy, these photographs are brilliant technically even before you get to look properly at the images and the iconography – and the iconoclasm – they embody.

And then, you do look closer. And what do you see? For one thing, you see a microcosm of what it is to be a South African in a society replete with values that shift by the day. Some of these characters, such as the swimsuit-clad woman in what looks like the underside of the bridge in downtown Johannesburg, or the Pale Male Fading in an image of graffiti, are like the unexpected gods of a place, the guardians of secret gateways into parallel universes.

You might look at these works and think of the photographs taken by French photographer Frédéric Brenner, or that of fellow South African photograph Roger Ballen, in terms of how the works are choreographed and curated, how Meyersfeld places characters in situations that are wont to erupt into a million words.

You might see the complicated futures and layered narratives indicated by the compositions, such as that of Guarded Futures, a composition containing a brown boy, a white boy and an Alsatian puppy. Black and white, rich and poor, joyous and complicated, the characters in this body of work is a litany into the many faces of South Africa.

But it is not boring platitudes or nifty compositional decisions that skirt with the smarmily sensational or the itchily uncomfortable that you will encounter in Adaptations. Meyersfeld’s lens embraces the minutiae in the details of each work with a tender sense of earnestness, almost a sensuous understanding of the value of each tile in a mosaic, and each chair in a room.

The effect is something of magical realism caught unawares. When you look at the naked man in an assembly hall, or the abject beggar whose condition is reflected in the face of the woman from whom he begs; the priest, complete with leopard skins in what was once the Wolmarans Street Shul in Johannesburg and the blend of goats and Gaultier in an image that reeks of one of South Africa’s urban townships, you gain a rich diverse melee of realities, and you realise with a kind of suddenness, how Meyersfeld’s gesture in capturing these people and these scenarios, is one that is not without a smile – a wry smile, granted, but a smile of great fondness for the miasma of values chucked together, which we in South Africa call ours.

These are not documentary photographs in the formal sense of the notion; many seem to be posed. The characters are not named. Rather, this body of work offers a kind of a stage set periscope into how Meyersfeld reflects on and composes an understanding of the sham and drudgery, the broken dreams and precious moments that comprise South Africa’s dark and contorted and sometimes surprisingly witty or beautiful social underbellies.

Given Meyersfeld’s status in the photographic world, these are also immensely haveable works, not only for their intelligence and intensity, but also because of the rapidly shifting currents in our world. You won’t remember these mad contradictory days when they’ve passed.

  • Adaptation by Michael Meyersfeld is at In Toto Gallery, in Birdhaven until July 3. Call 011 447 6543 or visit intotogallery.co.za

Journey to humanity’s heart, with a lens

By Israel Bansimba

  • Israel Bansimba is a third year fine art student at the University of Johannesburg, who took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen earlier this year.
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MAN with an eye for dance: Seasoned dance photographer, Denis Rion. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

THE MAGIC OF making a photograph work, according to Nantes-based veteran dance photographer Denis Rion (59), happens in the way in which it can capture light and movement. He was seduced by the medium at a young age and realised early on that this would be a lifelong affair. Rion was in South Africa for this year’s Dance Umbrella, as he collaborated with Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena on their work Corps. He chatted to My View about his career behind the lens and in front of dancers.

“Dance is a fundamental element of the culture and identity of each country I have visited,” he says, speaking of how his career has taken him all over the world. He is interested in capturing gestures and movement and his work’s resonance with the dance world felt natural from the start. His work has been characterised by his desire to capture and reflect on the idea of ‘the other’.

Characteristic of Rion’s dance photography is the black background. He explains this, deeming that blackness as neutral: “If the background is the decor, there is the subject plus the decor, but I’m only interesting at the subject, that’s why I use the black background in general.”

On his website, he comments: “My photos offer a still picture of what is most live in us: flesh and emotions, materials and colour, which highlight the magnificent force of movement and gesture, the richness of the diversity of body expression, like a journey to the heart of humanity.”

  • Rion’s work can be seen this week with the performance of Corps, danced by Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena in Infecting the City, April 5, 7 at Artscape, Cape Town. Visit infectingthecity.com/2017/

My body, my heroism

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THE reeds and I. Oupa Sibeko’s iQhawe. Photograph courtesy MAP Contemporary Gallery.

THERE’S A DENSE stillness articulated in the tough and unselfconscious photographs of performer Oupa Sibeko in his solo exhibition iQhawe. But as you look, you realise there is considerably more to these heroic images, cast pristinely onto a white background, which situate the artist in traditional reeds or nakedly.

For one thing, it’s an exhibition which comprises not only posed photographs – the works have been choreographed, if you will, by Sibeko, and photographed by Ben Skinner – these confrontational images conflate identity and bring together  cultural secrets with taboos, reeds with heroism in a black body painted white, and not only are they enticing, but they are also frightening. But you can’t readily look away.

iQhawe speaks of the Japanese dance form known as Butoh, where an engagement with the dancer’s body in relation to the dancer’s soul and the context of the dance is palpably intense and thoughtful. The movement is agonisingly slow. It’s like a form of worship or meditation. This is dance that reaches beyond the confines of convention or entertainment. It is dance which reaches back into the atavistic annuls of what dance was about a thousand years ago or more. It was about using the body to converse with the gods; being cognisant of one’s vulnerability, and prowess, of one’s beauty and terror.

Sibeko is an artist who continues to demonstrate a searing lack of fear in pushing the limits and questioning them guilelessly. Staging his performed work as a photographic moment is, of course, a marketing gesture, but it is more than that, too. Like Steven Cohen before him, among others, Sibeko, in capturing this powdery ether of his personal energy and culture, enables you to hold on to it all with the kind of intensity you lose in the transience of watching dance happen.

But also in Sibeko’s works, similar in a sense to that of the work of Ayana V Jackson, there’s a frank and almost deadpan engagement with the brutal structures of historical colonialist photography. Here’s a young man, imbued in his sense of self, in his Zulu culture, in his reeds and his body. He isn’t a specimen for scientific purposes. His photographs exist not for the need to be consumed in a racist rhetoric. He is what he is. A hero. A godhead. An angel. An emissary of his own values. Unapologetically.

  •  Reeds of iQhawe by Oupa Sibeko, is at MAP Contemporary Gallery in Melville until February 18. 011 726 3638 or visit www.mapcontemporary.co.za

Sucked into abstraction’s vortex, head first

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ONLY connect: A detail of Ricky Burnett’s painting in oil on canvas, titled Ivory VI. Photograph by Liz Whitter.

THIS REMARKABLE BOOK of photographs of black paintings made and exhibited by South African artist Ricky Burnett is intentionally out to mess with your mental equilibrium, but not your self-esteem. Premised with a short text written by Tracey Hawthorne, the book situates itself in art history. In confrontation with ideals of representation. But this is no ordinary art history book – or treatise. There’s no substantial guidance into how to get through each work with its individual nuances and characteristic density. You might feel lost and a little frightened.

It’s a fear sparked by the generally bad rap that visual art has gained in the contemporary press: often visual arts writing is done in such a way that if you are not armed with several degrees in a deep and obscure specialisation in the discipline, you will fear you’re not sufficiently intelligent or well-educated to engage with the core of the work. Blame it on conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp. On writers who over the years developed such an impenetrable tendency to obfuscate their writing with specialist terminology deriding plain language that they effectively chased away popular engagement.

You could even blame it on editors and sub-editors who over the years fell victim to bullying by specialist writers with complicated and seldom-used terminology and theories. But the more you look, the less you should fear these paintings in this book, for this reason.

Yes, they’re about the work of notoriously uncategorisable artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Yes, Burnett comments that the structure of the paintings is not apparent and that they hinge on Goya’s work in a way that cannot be easily traced. But he’s not really playing games with you. No, really.

In 1936, German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. A critical paean to the idea of photography as a medium and photography as a means of reproducing art, it was to become arguably one of the more important tracts on the moral and ethical issues surrounding reproduced photographs of paintings in books.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled With Goya sits strategically on the thorns of Benjamin’s argument. The photographs – taken by Liz Whitter – are of such a quality that they actually challenge the experience of seeing the art works in the flesh, in a gallery, lit in particular ways. Here, your nose is pushed against the nuances of the paint as it is lit in a certain way. You can almost smell the paint as you gaze into its peaks and valleys that the artist as created on the canvas.

But further to that, this is not only about photography and painting. It is also about printing. Published by Palimpsest International and printed in Malaysia, this book offers a richness which you can taste. It doesn’t suffer from a tendency to be muddied and sullied with fingerprints tainting the surface of the glossy paper.

The book does, however, have a downside. But it’s a downside that you could take and stretch across a whole swath of artmaking, should you be so inclined. And that rests upon its abstraction. If Liz Whitter and the Palimpsest International team had focused their considerable skills and acumen in photographing a patch of soil after a rainstorm, or the underside of a piece of rock, they would yield something as varied and as rich, and abstract and as magical as Burnett’s paintings of Goya’s work. Does that mean that we who feel sucked in by these images in this book, down to our very toes, are beguiled and foxed by tricks and nuances that have nothing to do with the real world? Not really. This book isn’t about the underside of a rock or a piece of soil. They’re about Ricky Burnett reflecting on Goya. And there’s their rub of brilliance.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled with Goya (Palimpsest International, Malaysia 2016) Visit www.rickyburnett.com

 

The stuff of nightmares

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SILENT reach: a still from Shirin Neshat’s Roja. Photograph courtesy Goodman Gallery.

AS YOU WALK into the gallery space, an aura of stunned silence enfolds you. There’s a single silver gelatin print by Shirin Neshat from her film Roja hanging on the wall before you: A young woman in black stands in front of a huge, vaguely mushroom-shaped building. And it is mesmerising. And terrifying, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on … but try as you will to pull your attention from it, you will fail.

It is the magnetism of these quiet yet deeply threatening works that force you to remember the title of the exhibition, and indeed, as you watch each of the two films on show in the gallery – Roja and Sarah – you feel yourself twisting and turning in your own metaphorical bedclothes as you struggle to make sense of a dream context that is impossibly frightening while it borders on the intangible and obscure.

There’s a passage in Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which a woman finds herself alone on an island inhabited by children.  It’s an immensely disturbing passage, blending a sense of sexual violation with an understanding of disorientation, but it is written with such a delicate yet acerbic pen that it is unforgettable and leaks into your subconscious. Similarly with Neshat’s work.

Entwining tones of light and the power of water to render images ghoul-like in their intensity and obscurity, this veteran Iranian-born, nomadic artist, whose work premiers in South Africa with this exhibition, knits together an understanding of fear in a world fraught with the threat of conflict. And yet, in its obscurity, it holds to the notion of dream.

But this is not comforting. Similar to Esther, Queen of the Swamp, a chilling video installation by Israel-based artist Miri Nishri – exhibited in Johannesburg in 2013 –Neshat’s film Sarah trammels through a sparsely treed forest, but it embraces a such a potent sense of dramatic expectation that you feel your heart beating rapidly in anticipation as you sit in the darkened space and drink up the sheer texture and focus of the material.

It is, however, the film Roja that might throw you emotionally. Conjoining so tight a focus with so broad a reach, the work engages with what could be the weight of guilt which a parent imposes upon an adult child. Or with the looming presence of politics. Rich with recrimination, accusation and theatricality, the work is bold, breathtakingly beautiful and in many ways almost sterile in its sense of silence. But you will take it away with you, when you leave the gallery. And when you try to sleep at night.

Elegantly hung, this exhibition, which focuses more on the nebulous stuff of dreams than on the politically articulate gestures involving text on the body for which Neshat is better known, comprises 10 works – including the two video installations – and each of the photographs is not only printed to a large format, but it is so big from a visual and an iconic angle that it stops you dead in your tracks.

  • Dreamers by Shirin Neshat is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until September 14. 011 788 1113.