Simangele Kalisa, Clothed (2009)

Review | Photographing recent history

David Mann
Jul 29, 2020 · 3 min read

This review forms part of a series of daily reviews on the 2020 Virtual National Arts Festival, first published on The Critter.

The 2010s are behind us. What do we have to show for it? More than a decade’s worth of photographic work showcasing the complex and myriad faces of South Africa is showcased in The Market Photo Workshop’s new online retrospective.

Reclamations, the online exhibition hosted on the Market Photo Workshop’s PHOTOFORM AFRICA platform, allows viewers to browse through the expansive project archives of its Tierney Fellowship photographers. A prestigious early career award that’s been recognising and fostering photographic talent since 2008, the fellowship has been awarded to 12 photographers over the years, each with a body of work that grapples with its own determined subject matter.

Identity, addiction, migration, land ownership, spirituality and more are unpacked in these rich and diverse photographic essays. Viewers can visit the city, the suburbs, or the shoreline through a collection of portraits, landscapes, and impromptu frames.

Matt Kay, The Front (2014)

Exhibiting these works online also allows for a more discursive, albeit less conventional form of viewing. On Day 1 of the Virtual National Arts Festival, I spent a good part of my morning browsing through Simangele Kalisa’s striking photo-series ‘Clothed’, as I waited for the vNAF’s online media briefing to commence. Later that day, I returned to be led through Tsepo Gumbi’s visual investigation of contemporary Sharpeville and navigate the dank and melancholy rooms of recovering drug addicts through the lens of Tracey Edser. Halfway through the second day of the festival, I had made my way through every single body of work.

Adequately representing each of these projects in a single written review would prove to be an impossible task. Although presently, a few images remain top of mind:

Two groups of swimmers on a Durban beachfront that make you question the era in which the photograph was made. A grisly scar snaking down the neck of a faceless man. The likeness of an artist superimposed onto old family photographs of her mother. Or — a particularly affecting image — a light-filled room photographed by the late Thabiso Sekgala that is so delicate in its colour and composition it very nearly resembles an oil painting.

Ho Tshepa Ntshepedi Ya Bontshepe (2017)

Viewing these bodies of work like this, having them punctuate your day intermittently or accompany you through a whole evening spent in front of a laptop screen, has a strange and heady effect on one’s perspective of time. Binging more than 10 years of South African reality — isolated and refined through the enduring nature of the photographic medium — over the course of one and a half days will typically do that.

Ultimately, the contents of Reclamations deliver a collectively encouraging and heart-breaking tale. Encouraging, because for a medium that has historically been used to skew systems of power and incorrectly frame the narrative of an entire country, the works of these artists is proof that contemporary South African photography is being used to document, archive, and portray a growing number of the country’s perspectives and stories. Heartbreaking, because in many of these works, the socio-political faultlines being highlighted and called into question have persisted well into the present day. 10 years is a long time. Longer still when the state of things remains unchanged.

Browse through Reclamations here.

David Mann

Writes things. Edits things. Reads things.

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