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Reveries and Ruminations: Top 20 Albums of 2007

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David Basckin in NEWSART, April 1998

Dan Cook in The Sunday Independent, South Africa, 1998

Thoko Mthiyane, 1997

The art of photographs


“In the 1970s and 1980s South African photography was largely dominated by the genre of social documentary,” writes Kathleen Grundlingh of the South African National Gallery (SANG) in Cape Town. Grundlingh was behind the milestone 1997 exhibition PhotoSynthesis, which strove to reflect the trends and discourses that characterise creative South African photography in the late 1990s.

“Freed from their collective political purpose, photographers have had to redefine their individual photographic identities and aims.

“The 1990s have heralded the rebirth of a South African photography which is rich in diversity. In post-apartheid South Africa, photographers and artists are exploring the potential of the medium as a vehicle for self-expression.”

PhotoSynthesis featured the works of innovative documentarists like Guy Tillim, Andrew Tshabangu, Angie Buckland, Omar Badsha and Santu Mofokeng, who takes the documentary genre into unprecedented spaces and private worlds.

In a more conceptual vein were the works of Stephen Hobbs, Jeremy Wafer, Jo Ractliffe, Minette Vari and Tamsyn Adams. Then there was studio artist Bobby Bobson, and, on the pop front, Godfrey Gumede (whose Warhol-goes-Africa montage Born to Love U features a photograph of a woman wearing a doek pasted on to the lens of a camera) and Sipho Khosa, whose Icon combines Byzantine iconography with a down-to-earth snapshot of a modern African woman. At a more abstract symbolic level were the works of Alastair Whitton, Lien Botha, Jane Alexander and Penny Siopis.

“What is so striking about the submissions for this exhibition,” writes the University of the Western Cape’s Jane Taylor, “is just how many of them are exploring formal properties such as design, illusion, framing ... Andrew Tshabangu’s images of women working with braziers is luminously metaphysical in its tones, placing images within clusters of oval Victorian frames, giving the images he produces a self-conscious archaism and thereby invoking conventional landscape effects. Zwelethu Mthethwa’s recent photographic portraits seem to belong to the vividly coloured language of his drawings, and as a result the photographs treat the domestic environments of the women he photographs as tone poems saturated with colour and graphic interest.”

Despite the curators’ earnest attempts at fair representation, many significant photographers still felt excluded from the process. Nonetheless the exhibition fulfilled its aim of showing how photography has shifted from the zealous realism that predated the new South Africa.

Form is being taken as seriously as content. Writes Mofokeng: “The ‘us and them’ paradigm that informed my photographic practice in the past has given way to an awkward ‘we’‚ a foetus of doubtful pedigree.”

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