Levelled by floodlines

drowningworld

THAT’S all there is. Gideon Mendel’s 2015 photograph of João Pereira de Araújo, standing inside his house, in Taquari District, Rio Branco, Brazil.

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.
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Paul Weinberg: A Man Who Can Honestly Attest to Living Through History

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

It’s almost a year since Nelson Mandela passed away. To commemorate this great man, award winning art professional Natalie Liknaitzky has curated an exhibition of South African art, which will be shown at the Stephan Welz Studio in Sandton from December 5 until January 11.

The show, another in the series of shows which Liknaitzky has put together celebrating Mandela, will be called We Love Mandela: In Memoriam; it will include a selection of works from the exhibition recently shown in London, plus new works by Jane Makhubele, Ilan Ossendryver, Alfred Thoba, Zapiro and Cape-based photographer Paul Weinberg (pictured, below) – a co-founder of the 1980s photographic collective Afrapix – who took arguably the only photograph of Mandela’s first vote at Ohlange School in Inanda, Durban, the site of the grave of John Dube.

Last week, speaking of the past, the present and the future through his lens, he told My View how that photograph happened: “I was working for the Independent Electoral Commission as a freelance photojournalist during the 1994 elections. Mandela voted a second time for hundreds of photographers outside.”

But being first in line hadn’t always been Weinberg’s privilege when it came to filming Mandela. When Mandela was released from the Victor Verster prison in 1991, Weinberg was a little late in arriving to cover the event. “I sheepishly tried to find a spot and a relatively good vista. My initial position was behind a Time magazine photographer and his partner. As the wind blew, her long flowing hair kept obscuring my vision.

“‘Do you mind moving slightly to the left?’ I asked her at one point. ‘Yes I mind!’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting here for eight hours.’ My response was immediate: ‘Well, millions of us have been waiting all our lives!’ I then settled on a place which was more like a worm’s eye view. At least I had a clear path of the gates.

“And after more waiting, Nelson and Winnie walked through the gates towards the media. I focused and pressed the shutter. As I did, a group of comrades who were to my right, surged. My cameras, camera bag and I went flying. My Madiba moment consists of blue sky and telephone lines! To add further ignominy, I lost a lens in the fracas.

“In an attempt to redeem myself, I rushed to the grand parade and it was jammed packed and after hours of waiting Madiba arrived in very low light – his driver had gotten lost, which resulted in a long wait. I have a blurry photo of him waving to the crowd. I was really freaked out that two historic moments had passed with nothing to show for it.

“Caught up in the events that followed I joined the Mandela train to some extent as he connected to the South African public. On one occasion I was commissioned to do ‘a day in the life’ of Nelson Mandela. As we walked along the corridor, Madiba remembering my name, turned to me and asked, ‘Are you related to my good friend Eli Weinberg?’ I replied with the same answer, ‘Not directly but our forebears came from the same city, Riga in Latvia.’ ‘I see,’ he said generously. But I knew my answer was not going to get me much closer to the great man.

“One got then a very clear impression that Madiba knew when he was talking to you or allowing his photograph to be taken, he was connecting with the world. You were as important to him as he was to us. The media were his direct artery to the world which he so brilliantly has managed throughout his life.”

Weinberg, who was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg describes his participation in Liknaitzky’s project as something that grew out of a conversation. “I got into the show through the side door. I went to see the work she did on Mandela at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, I told her I’d done a bit of work myself,” he adds, referring to the collection on show in this exhibition as a “series of firsts.”

Skirting from describing himself as having a comprehensive focus on Mandela he says, “As a photojournalist, I kept my eyes peeled and was cognisant of the significant moments that were happening. I had been documenting politically significant moments from the 1980s.”

paulweinbergpic2

When Weinberg was 11 he won a Hebrew prize designated for the purchase of books. “But I ran off and used it to buy myself a very nice little Canon Rangefinder, it was better than a Brownie and was my first real camera. On my barmitzvah, I upgraded to a Pentax, with all the lenses, which I bought from a press photographer.

“In high school I dabbled and kind of did what I thought I needed to do, and learned how to take pictures and develop. My interest in photography was percolating. Then I did all the usual things: I went to the army and came out and went to the university and I was half way through a law degree at ‘Maritzburg University when it was suddenly June 1976. And I thought I just can’t do this anymore. I have to take a stand.

“So I handed in my rifle and registered as a conscientious objector, not really knowing what I was doing, but that moment was pivotal because then I realised it was real and pondered: if I do get arrested or charged, do I really have the balls to sit in jail?” He decided to get some kind of qualification that would give him the skills to earn a living elsewhere. “A law degree would get me nowhere.

“I went back to the local technical college where I did a certificate in photography, but I also completed my BA at the same time and then I headed for Jo’burg, to escape from the army commando that I was at.

“And the rest is history. I lived out of a suitcase with a passport next to me and never paid tax and got totally involved in the world around me in trying to play my part in documenting what was going on. And I tripped and fell often, as I went.

“Narratives can be delusional,” he laughs, speaking of the flawed sense of romance in the hard life of a freelancer. “It was incredibly exciting. We were living history. I was caught up in events and the world was happening around us. On reflection, what a phenomenal privilege it was to live through those times.”

Afrapix was founded in 1982, by Weinberg in collaboration with Omar Badsha, Lesley Lawson, Biddy Partridge and Mxolise Mayo. A decade before the photographers associated with the Bang Bang club – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovic and Joao Silva – “Afrapix’s ethos was different to that of the Bang Bang Club. We were like a family. We were uncompetitive with each other: it was quite phenomenal. We had a lot of people who weren’t traditional photographers – there were housewives and people from the townships like darkroom assistants like Santu Mofokeng, who developed into heavyweights in the industry. We were there for strays and waifs, and anyone who was committed to the cause.

“It’s a big jump for documentary photographers like myself to enter the artworld,” he adds. “It’s a whole new vocabulary. I am in the minor league,” he says, but as the creator of several photographic books containing his different series, he’s developed a lot of street cred as a photographer who knows his stuff.

“But when I think of the 1970s, I remember how David Goldblatt’s books, like Some Afrikaners and On the Mine were available at Estoril books for R1.50: they were commercial failures at the time, but have gone on to become enormously iconic, and I believe there’s hope. Someday, maybe someone will be buying Paul Weinberg books in the same vein.”

In his capacity as photographic curator, where he is employed by the archives of the University of Cape Town, Weinberg is currently in the process of putting together a project called The Other Camera. “It’s about vernacular photography, which I have been researching over years and years. The opening of this exhibition at the Wits Art Museum will coincides with a Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) conference at Wits University in mid February.

“For this project, I have dug and found stuff way off the beaten track. Being aware of this genre has been amazing. Okwui Enwezor and Simon Njami have discovered the west African form of this genre of portrait photography and have exposed it to the world through Malick Sidibé and Sedou Keita but they’ve left out the southern African part.

“Does it make sense? This is really where urbanisation took off first in Africa. The connection with the camera and identity all that stuff to do with modernity was definitely going to happen.

“Photography has a weird place,” he concludes. “Photographers are sometimes inarticulate in various ways but they kind of know that this, in this moment, they have got something special. Often it is for the wrong reasons – fame and glory… but at the end of the day, one looks back at them and sees their value.”

  • We Love Mandela: In Memoriam is at the Welz Studio, Shop L38, Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton, December 5-January 11. Call Christa (011)026-6586 or Nadine 082-891-8252.

Ngezinyawo: Migrancy through a thoughtful loupe at WAM.

One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.

One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.

Occasionally, you come across a curated exhibition so attuned to delivering on its promises, your heart sings. Fiona Rankin-Smith with years of curatorial expertise yields an impeccable reflection on migrancy which informs without being didactic, moves without being maudlin and will touch you very deeply. The magic starts before you even enter the museum.

Last week, composer Philip Miller debuted a sound installation in WAM’s vestibule. Entitled Extracts from the Underground, it’s a beautiful idea, articulated like his TRC Cantata a few years ago. This sublime work, which bleeds into Braamfontein’s streets with its projected sounds and visuals, has as libretto a 1967 Fanagalo dictionary. On opening night, last week, precious operatic moments were sung by choristers. The libretto? A ledger listing injuries incurred by miners, dating from the 1930s.

Miller’s work is astounding. But its impact should not be allowed to overrule the rest of the exhibition. Works grab you by the eyes and knock you sideways by virtue of thoughtful juxtapositions and intelligent reflections on the issues at hand.

From Michael Goldberg’s heart-catching 1970s Hostel Monument for the Migrant Worker, which conjures up harsh hostel realities, to photographs by Gideon Mendel, David Goldblatt, Gisèle Wulfsohn, splaying open different, heartbreaking aspects of SA migrancy; from Claudette Schreuders’ sculpture of a black woman with a white child, to Ilan Godfrey’s photograph of a prostitute in a forest and overpoweringly fine narrative photographs of illegal miners by Mark Lewis; from traditional and contemporary beadwork to Tito Zungu’s exquisite envelopes celebrating the big city and touching his own homesickness, the show is rich with diversity.

Coupled with educational challenges to stir your heart and head, the exhibition includes William Kentridge’s marvellous 1991 hand-made film ‘Mine’, which reverberates with a compilation of mining footage, and in turn thunderously speaks to Miller’s work.

You might leave this exhibition with sore feet: there’s a fair amount of space to cover. But you will certainly leave it with a full heart. Migrancy stretches deep into many of our histories. It’s an exhibition which earns full critical marks and deserves many re-visits.

  • Parking near WAM is awkward; rather pre-book parking.
  • Miller’s work is screened until June 26.
  • A version of this review appeared in the print issue of the SA Jewish Report.

Exhibition: Ngezinyawo – Migrant Journeys is at Wits Art Museum, Braamfontein. It is curated by: Fiona Rankin-Smith, Peter Delius and Laura Phillips and is on show until July 20.