1994. A photographic exhibition by Pieter Hugo. At Stevenson until July 16. DANNY SHORKEND reviews
CHILDREN may represent or symbolise innocence, exuberance, curiosity and the very future of any society. Yet, strangely, when photographed, a serious confrontation ensues with regard to the decaying borders of innocent youth; a sense of resignation and forlornness; the cessation of a questioning spirit and fear of the unknown, as if one treads carefully into the distant moments beyond the now.
And yet this duality is apt in the context of Hugo’s photographs of children.
These portraits of children born after 1994 in either South Africa or Rwanda, where political upheaval and revolution was the order of the day, convey a contradictory vantage point.
Post 1994, it is uncertain whether there are in fact traces of that darker past or whether difficulties are now surmounted and they (the children) beckon, as it were, to a bright future in both countries.
It is not simply the clothing, posture, gestures and facial expressions that the artist has attended to. The “models” are cushioned and framed by nature.
Here too is a paradox: nature, the last bastion of innocence and ceaseless growth. But nature too as enveloping civilization, without rules wherein untamed, wild and uncouth forces exist. Sometimes the earth is reddish-brown; sometimes water cascades; flowers often dot and decorate the photographic surface and sometimes light and shadow subtly play with the forms.
Clothing is often out of place (gifts from Europe), but most out-of- sync are the stares of the children.
These are photographs of single individuals, barring one work where one child carries another. Perhaps here is the resolution that in themselves one cannot truly find a deep, sensitive core, but given the chance for friendship and play, children bond – the first vestige of innocence is to accept and look beyond oneself, to trust the “other”.
And yet that may be the single act that leads to the desecration of innocence, that leads to the kind of genocide that occurred in Rwanda, or the dehumanisation of some people by the ruling party under apartheid SA.
This concern for the historic past and its manifestation as the present, is well conceived in terms of the reference to children. For, one wonders, as a viewer, how aware these children might be of the history of the land of their birth.
In this sense, history is lost only to then reassert momentum as yesterday’s children become the foundation for the future. Now, they are vulnerable, tomorrow they will be socialized further and perhaps – away from the cover of nature – a new society will form.
But will it? Or will history just repeat itself, now in this guise, now in another. The often-vacant stares; the dialectic between overwhelming nature and the growing human mind, in addition to the potential trauma and loss of innocence – such visual clues suggest that the initial, immediate “glossy surface” also carries rather darker overtones. In fact, there is even an ethical and moral dimension of using children in the world of art. Who in fact benefits? No matter, the photographs I am sure are incorrupt and pure?
Without been too hard-pressed to find an answer, I somehow zone in on the photograph as photograph. And then I see the works as flat, optical delights, the figures lying on nature. It is untrammelled and far from the incursions of adult man.
This two-dimensionality is a visual delight as flowers become dots and squiggles; water signals via the waves of pastille chalk and trees and earth become textured surfaces with beaming colouration. But now I have forgotten the “real” world to which it belongs: politics, history, religion, economics, art history, science, philosophy and so on and so forth. Another dialectical oscillation.
This time there is a struggle, a war and tension between purely formal components and representational, iconographic elements, insofar as there is some correspondence to the “real world”.
Or at least the world as it is analysed, filtered and parcelled up as the world , as it were, in accordance with such cultural disciplines or games or modes of representation.
A thought-provoking exhibition, teetering on the borderline between easy, aesthetic delight and a profound observation of the uncertainty of the human condition, that is quite simply not knowing if, following Yves Klein, we are merely leaping into the void.
I recommend a visit.
l 021 462 1500