THERE’S A CLINICALITY to this intense body of photographic work that repels your inner being and makes you want to turn away and then run away really quickly before you encounter the works in detail. But that same inner being of yours knows that if you do this, you will be caught. And punished. If you have been through the officialdom of a schooling system under apartheid, with its mandatory medical examinations, you will know why. Richardt Strydom brilliantly offers a body of work that makes you feel as though you shouldn’t be looking, but once you do look, it is difficult to turn your gaze away.
Premised on an extract from Jean-Paul Sartre’s powerful preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (first published in 1965), an electrically relevant text which embodies similar nerve-endings to Franz Kafka’s haunting tale Report to an Academy, the work is not only about handpicked “promising adolescents branded with the principles of western culture…”, it’s also about the unspoken horror of colonialism. Sartre goes on to promise the reader than when they have finished reading Fanon’s vital text, “… you will be convinced that it would be better for you to be a native at the uttermost depths of his misery than to be a former settler.”
In several visually clean and professionally hung series of photographs, Strydom engages a whole litany of the realities of being raised as a white, Afrikaans-speaking youth under the pall of apartheid. This is not just another politically astute exhibition, but it is something of a horror show. However, under the wise and astute viewfinder of this photographer and the exhibition’s curator, Musha Nehuleni the work on show presents none of the blood and guts that a traditional horror show might offer, but rather implied intimacies, a sense of suicidal values and a sense of medical exploration that tramples into the notion of invasive sexuality. They’re immensely uncomfortable images that will haunt you.
The mesmerising reality of this exhibition is that it is not sensationalist. There are no genitals on display, or acts of “real” violence. All the photographs focus on the head of the sitter. The suicidal gestures involve fingers pointed in the child-like framework of a make-believe gun. The sexual innuendo is something you draw out of the images of fingers in mouths. You look at each man photographed, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Because of the gestures, the context, the surrounds.
Further there is a video piece that segues together footage of these pseudo medical examinations which recall the kinds of things that were imposed upon young boys during apartheid – ostensibly to check their readiness for the army which was mandatory at the time (only here the idea of pre-pubescent boys has been superseded by the presence of men). The work is overcast with soundbytes. One man is explaining why he would like to become a sex worker. Another speaks of how things snowballed into a violent situation after he had imbibed one too many. The voices are difficult to hear, difficult to listen to, as you hear them. The blending of these invasive facial examinations by a white hand, devoid of a medical examination glove, with this soundtrack is more horrifying than watching a staged display of atrocity.
But a strange dynamic was operative in the space last Sunday. One of the temporary walls closing off parts of the downstairs exhibition area was dismantled, roughly, revealing the rest of the enormous space filled with broken furniture and fragments of rubbish and dust. A charismatic church was singing hymns somewhere in Joubert Park. The presence of this broken bit of the gallery and the beauty of the church songs bounced and rumbled off the works on Bleek with such an energy it felt planned. Difficult to establish if it was, but either way, it gave the experience of visiting the exhibition a local context and a resounding resonance that hammered home all of those race values and left a residue of goosebumps that will take some time before they subside.
- Bleek by Richardt Strydom, curated by Musha Nehuleni, is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park until August 14. 011 725 3130