‘A Rainbow Nation’: the famous words used by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the unity of races and merging of cultures in post-apartheid South Africa after the 1994 election. The V & A strives to represent this rainbow nation in their new exhibition Figures and Fictions: exhibiting a selection of contemporary South African photography, these photographs collectively offer an insight into a South Africa of past and present. Each photographer has addressed their perception of the country through their camera lens. Consequently this individual interpretation brings forth a range of social issues including historical influence, the current political climate and racial acceptance.
Sabelo Mlangeni and Zanele Muholi both highlight the emergence of the gay community within South African society. Photographs from Mlangeni’s series “Country Girls” features in the exhibition portraying gay life in rural areas. The black and white photographs depict some of the ‘girls’ – or cross-dressing men – clothed as Mlangeni discovers them. Their self-assured stances present a change in a previously homophobic country, in which homosexuality was a crime carrying a sentence of up to seven years. Deprivation of gay rights appeared to be a distant memory when it became the fifth country worldwide to legalise same-sex marriages and introduce equal rights for all in adoption and military service, though prejudices against the lesbian and gay community still exist today. Zahele Muholi’s work aims to confront these prejudicial views. Photographs of young gay men in the series Beulahsin, conveys the reality of being gay in modern South Africa as they pose in contemporary, vibrant clothes and pose with the intention of inverting stereotypes.
Johannesburg-based photographer Nontskielelo Veleko certainly seeks to present a new perception of her country with the ‘born free’ generation that has grown up post-Apartheid. Her striking photographs of South Africa’s teenagers set against their urban backgrounds pay tribute to South Africa’s future. But whilst the exhibition definitely exudes a celebratory vibe indicative of modern South Africa free from the constraints of apartheid’s grasp, there are reminders of the struggles that South Africans still face. Deceptive at first, Santu Mofokeng’s series “Chasing Shadows” depicts the tranquillity of a set of caves used as a Christian prayer site and a place of traditional healing. However, this peace is aligned with a portrait of his brother, who is seeking a cure for AIDS. The country is high up in the AIDS pandemic with one in seven people HIV positive, a fact which is one of many underlying problems that subverted general optimism brought about by the after the promise of the 1994 election.
In the elections this month, the African National Congress faced major opposition, with support gaining for the Democratic Alliance for the first time since being elected in 1994. The DA were calling for people not to vote because of race, but because of policy. They are increasingly rallying support due to the massive issues of poverty and unemployment in South Africa. The photographs entitled ‘Woman on the footpath from Boa Vista to Roque Santeiro Market’ by Jo Ratcliffe is one of the most poignant images in the exhibition, exposing a landscape littered with detritus, amongst which are makeshift homes. It is a portrayal that should not be associated with the rule of the African National Congress who promised to revitalise the country after the horrific treatment suffered under apartheid. Yet rumours of a power-hungry and corrupt government pose the question of how far South Africa has really progressed.
Particularly thought-provoking are Mikhael Subotzky’s photographs entitled “Security” because of their focus on the men that the white middle classes employ for the protection of their property. A moving photograph shows an all-white street party in a beautiful suburban area, whilst the black security guard is positioned near the edge of the photo. It creates an uncomfortable depiction that is too reminiscent of past segregation, although at the same time it poses the idea of whether it would generate the same reaction if the security guard was white. It questions whether this previous history has formed deep scars that will always remain.
Pieter Hugo’s photograph, too, questions the concept of race, though it implies racial cohesion rather than conflict, as a white middle-aged couple nestle the black infant boy between them. Initially it is disturbing, yet on closer viewing it confronts our misconceptions of South Africa as details such as the man’s prosthetic leg, the couple’s dishevelled clothing and furniture insinuates their poor financial state, in contrast with the neatly-dressed black boy placed between them. This entering image immediately dispels the presumed knowledge viewers may have of South Africa and establishes the notion of the exhibited photography exposing a complicated nation.
Whilst South African citizens appear to be voting for change rather than race, this long surviving issue still exists. Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi came under attack for his televised comment that “there’s an oversupply of coloureds in the Western Cape”, representing the reality that racism still exists in South Africa and confirming the racial tensions between blacks, coloureds and whites. The issue of land distribution is a continuing dilemma, with the government planning to reassign 30% of farmland to black South Africans by 2014. Many young successful white people have left the country fearing for their safety as crime rates soar. Infuriation develops as the majority of the unemployed are black people, although the overturning of apartheid has seen an escalation in prosperous black middle-class South Africans. The exhibition highlights the vast improvements South Africa has made, but also the reality that enormous progression is still required. It will be a long time before apartheid truly becomes a distant memory.