Goldblatt’s tightly cropped black and white photo, Woman Smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg,could easily serve as the poster image for these conditions. Every aspect of what little we see of this woman’s body — her clasped wrists, her tightly clenched thighs – describes the unease of being a black South African woman in public: sitting, smoking and waiting. Those themes – waiting and unease – run like twin currents through the show. Until the rise of democracy in 1994, South Africa was a nation that codified and controlled every aspect of black life. Today it has one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, yet its people still suffer under the decaying weight of a past that the artists express in bodily terms.
While a substantial portion of the show’s photography is given over to quiet personal moments, Zanele Muholi chooses to be loud. Her activist Faces and Phases series of black-and-white portraits demand recognition and justice for black lesbian and transgender men: a group often seen by regressive elements in South Africa as “broken” women that can, in a baffling and tragic form of thinking, be “fixed” by violence. “Corrective rape” and other atrocities are visited on LGBT individuals with staggering frequency. Muholi seeks to reverse that situation.
Nicholas Hlobo’s Umphanda ongazaliyo and Ngumgudu nemizano consist of two large “stomachs” seemingly connected to each other through an appendage that penetrates a wall, its waist-high tendrils resembling the mouth of some flamboyant black rubber sea anemone. One resembles a creature suspended off the ground in a bulbous patchwork of inner tube rubber and brightly colored ribbon, woven together like a taxidermic re-creation of a once-living thing. The other, strewn on the floor of the main gallery and attached to a wearable rubber suit, appears emptied out. It speaks of devouring and exhaustion, mirroring its Xhosa title (“a vessel that never fills up”) to echo, all too clearly, themes sounded elsewhere by the show, among them blackness, Xhosa culture, queer identity and sex.
Photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse explore Ponte City, an iconic high-rise apartment building built for wealthy whites in apartheid-era Johannesburg that is today a symbol of repeated redevelopment failures. The duo cast the tower in a mythic light, presenting quotidian views with a quasi-religious air. Scenes of everyday life from the perspective of residents are projected in rolling sequence
across glass, giving the desolation parity with the lives of saints on cathedral windows. Two large photo prints continue the mock consecration. One shows white-robed “shepherds” praying among decaying skyscrapers, the other depicts the cylindrical city’s open-air interior as ruins of a Gothic church or an excavated tomb.
Handspring Puppet Company, a group long associated with William Kentridge, issues a powerful meditation on mortality in the form of a video of their play, Or you Could Kiss Me. It features near-life-size wood puppets of old men operated by four to six people. Each shifts seamlessly between the role of a puppeteer moving figures along a runway to actors portraying caregivers who help their dependents perform daily tasks, which include – rather ominously – the repeated lighting and insertion of cigarettes into the lips of their charges. It’s a poignant and frightening spectacle of how independence is erased with age, and how private moments are constantly exposed, and not necessarily to anyone’s betterment. More broadly, this haunting display of bodily deterioration and dependence — intercut with memories of the men as independent young lovers – mirrors the failings of the South African state. These remarkably pliant prosthetic figures and the skillful manner with which they are manipulated only magnify the impact of that message. They are the absolute highlight of the show.
Penny Siopis’ Shame series pushes bodily vulnerability further still. The 90 intaglio prints, each about the size of a greeting card, are etched with a sugarlift technique that belies the trauma depicted in bloody images of young women abused, attacked or insulted. Many carry horribly ironic messages (“forgive as you hope to be forgiven” or “may your day be full of love, smiles, sunshine”) that contrast sharply with the brutality pictured.