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JONG AFRIKANER: A Self Portrait. A photographic installation by Roelof Petrus van Wyk. At Commune 1, 64 Wale Str until July 26. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews
LAST year Roelof van Wyk exhibited at a group photographic exhibition titled Figures and Fictions at the V&A in London. The exhibition, which looked at post-apartheid photographic culture, included works by David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Santu Mofokeng and Zweleythu Mthethwa.
Jong Afrikaner is Van Wyk’s first solo exhibition. He does not consider himself a photographer, yet this exhibition is clearly a show of photographic portraits. The photographs aren’t of stereotypical Afrikaners and yet the title includes the word “Afrikaner”. Furthermore, the exhibition is subtitled A Self Portrait, but there isn’t one photograph of Van Wyk. With all these apparent contradictions what is the exhibition really about?
Van Wyk says, “I am not a photographer”, and he isn’t. An architect by training, he uses photography as he would any other medium as a mode of expression to achieve the demands of a particular creative problem he has set himself.
When grouped as a whole, the photographs suggest a cohesive environment closer to an installation than individual pieces of work. The use of Diasec mounting provides the images with a high-gloss finish.
Commune 1 used to be a church and later a funeral home. Its simple, large volumes provide the compelling, simple portraits with an austere counterpoint. As for the self-portrait aspect, this tribe of sitters, selected from images of 100 friends, reflect the characteristics of Van Wyk and a community of like-minded friends. The word “Afrikaner” here does not mean Afrikaans-speaking, but rather born of Africa. Van Wyk’s primary historical influence lies in the portrait painting of 17th century Holland. This is in keeping with his Afrikaans heritage. Among other characteristics is the emphasis on the everyday and the strong use of light and dark for dramatic effect.
One of the most interesting art forms from that time is the tronie, a type of portrait painting. Jan Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring is one. The term originated from the French word trogne, translated as “mug”, as in mugshot.
Unlike many paintings, the tronie paintings were not commissioned by clients but were paintings of an unknown sitter and were not intended as portraits. They were used to market the ability of the painter with the hope of further commissions and were sold on the open market.
As AR Fuchs points out, the portrait as opposed to the tronie, “is not just the likeness of an individual to be preserved for posterity; it was also an image of pride, a projection of social position”.
Other influences are Pablo Picasso as seen in the intense look of Raoul Rautenbach, and Francis Bacon, seen in the half-turned neck pose of Daniel Swanepoel.
If these are portraits of ordinary people why the picture of Yo-Landi Vi$$er of Die Antwoord? Vi$$er was photographed before she became prominent.
And yes, they may be ordinary people but all have a story; the Afrikaans seun who became a sangoma after getting brain cancer, the two gay boys who married, and the guy who carries the scars of two pacemakers.
One of the immediate responses to the portraits is not that they are all pale-eyed, bar one or two, and all Caucasian. That is a given. But that their pale skins have this wonderful rosy blush in spite of the keloid scars, some tacky tattoos and lots of moles and freckles. The portraits have a beauty, not of airbrushed models, but by virtue of simply being young. All the sitters are between the ages of 15 and 43 and the red blush is from the red bias of the film.
It may be easy to classify the sitters as Caucasian, but there is a wide range of ancestry within this. And this is what I think Van Wyk was getting at. It defies classification and opens up a discourse as to the nature of classification.
The redheads could be English, Scots or Irish, the blonde sitters have a look that ranges from Soviet and Swedish to German and the dark-haired dark-eyed sitters seem to have Mediterranean ancestry .
A book, Jong Afrikaner: A Self Portrait, with text by Stephanus Muller, accompanies the exhibition.
The 43-year-old Van Wyk will be “rebooting the mainframe” as he puts it, when he leaves in September for a year’s study at London’s prestigious Goldsmith College, having being selected from 30 students to do a masters in cultural studies with a focus on Africa.
Look out for Van Wyk’s landscape project and his next project, which researches 12 Van Wyk family bloodlines which include Khoisan and Sotho members among Afrikaners.
l Gallery hours are Tuesday to Friday 10am to 6pm, and Saturday from 10am to 2pm. Call 021 423 5600.