Posts Tagged ‘myths

03
Jun
18

Review: ‘Diane Arbus: American Portraits’ at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 21st March – 17th June 2018

Curator at Heide: Anne O’Hehir

 

Diane Arbus. 'Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963' 1963

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963
1963
Silver gelatin print

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963' 1963

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963 (installation view)
1963
Silver gelatin print
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

 

The power of intention

If I had to nominate one photographer who is my favourite of all time, it would be Diane Arbus. There is just something about her photographs that impinge on my consciousness, my love of difference in human beings, their subversiveness and diversity. She pictures it all, some with irony, some with love, some with outright contempt, but always with interest. In photographs of dwarfs you don’t get the majesty and beauty that Susan Sontag desired, you get something else instead: the closeness of intention and effect – this is who this person was at that particular moment represented in a photograph, the essence of their being at that particular time.

Arbus was fascinated by the relationships between the psychological and the physical, probing her subjects with the camera to elicit a physical response. Her sensory, emotional, intellectual and aesthetic intelligence creates a single experience in relation to subject, stimulating her to respond to the world in her own unique way. While Arbus may well have hated aspects of American culture – “Its hypocrisy, this ‘happy happy’ story after the war, the consumerism, the racism, she feels deeply about that,” as Anne O’Hehir, curator of the National Gallery of Australia’s American Portraits observes – she photographed everything that makes us human in profound and powerful photographs. To me, her subjects were not ‘caught off guard’ nor did they unintentionally reveal aspects of themselves – they revealed themselves to Arbus just as they are, because she gained their trust, she had empathy for who they were… an empathy that probably flowed both ways, enhanced by the subjects sense of Arbus’ own personal travails.

It is unfortunate then, that this exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art is such a disappointment. This has nothing to do with the wonderful installation by the Heide curatorial team in the beautiful gallery spaces, but in the prints themselves and the artists that accompany Arbus’ work. Let’s look at the prints first.

According to an article by Louise Maher on the ABC News website in 2016, “The collection is one of the largest public holdings of her work outside New York and, according to NGA curator of photography Anne O’Hehir, one of the most impressive in the world. “The gallery was buying a huge amount of work in 1980 and ’81 leading up to the opening of the gallery in 1982,” Ms O’Hehir said. “We were offered in two lots these extraordinary photographs – they were the first release of prints from the Arbus estate and they were expensive at the time.”

These vintage prints are by the hand of Arbus, not later printings by other people, and as such should be as close a rendition to what Arbus intended the work to look like as can be found. The exhibition text notes that, “All the same, she was very clear about how she wanted her images to look; she worked hard to achieve a particular quality in her prints, which have a distinct feel and appearance that are quite different from other photographs of the 1960s … She reminds us consistently through a number of careful and deliberate strategies that we are looking at a photograph that has been made by a particular person.”

Through these strategies Arbus sought to differentiate her prints from the West Coast Ansel Adams Zone system of printing which was prevalent at the time. The Zone System would have been the antithesis of what Arbus wanted from her photographs. Every popular magazine at that time would have had Zone System stuff… so Arbus didn’t dare align herself with that school. But truth be told, if these prints are the best that she could do as a printer, then they are not very good. As can be seen from the installation photographs in this posting (not the media photographs), some of the prints are so dark as to be beyond comparison to the clarity of the prints that were later produced by her daughter Doon Arbus for the Arbus estate and for reproduction in books. You only have to look at the installation photograph of Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963 (above) and another reproduction of this image to see how dark the National Gallery of Australia’s prints are. If you take time to actually look at the photographs one of the prints, Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1966 (1966, below) was barely in focus under the enlarger when developed, and several others have not been fixed properly. They may have been first release, but how far down the release were they? We don’t know whether these were the top shelf prints, or tenth in the stack. I know from personal experience that I have a numbering system from one to ten. You sell the best print and so number two then becomes number one, and so on.

The poorness of these prints again becomes a sign of intention. The print is the final, luminous rendition of a photographers previsualisation, the ultimate expression of their creativity. This is how I want to show you the world, through this photograph. It is the end point of a long process. I believe strongly that Arbus wanted to show things as clearly as possible, as clearly as the best possible use that photography could provide. She is like a razor the way she cuts through. But in these particular final renditions, she lets herself down. And the people who bought these photographs, should have realised what poor prints they were.

Turning to the artists that accompany the work of Arbus… was it really necessary to surround such a powerful artist’s work with such noise? While it is always a delight to see the work of Mary Ellen Mark, William Eggleston, Milton Rogovin, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Lisette Model, Walker Evans, Weegee and William Klein, to try and embed the work of Arbus within a photographic milieu, within a cacophony of imagery that stretches from the 1930s to the 1980s, simply does not work. While Arbus emerges out of the concerns of her era, she is such a powerful presence and force that simply no one compares. She is so different from the organised Evans and or the macabre Weegee, more closely aligned to Model, and certainly by no stretch of the imagination does she influence Eggleston, Friedlander, Winogrand, Mark or Rogovin in any significant way… that these artists works just become filler for this exhibition. If the intention was to situate Arbus’ work in the chronological “flow” of photography then the concept falls between intention and effect. While no artist’s work appears without regard to historical precedent, their work is simply their own and needs its own space to breathe.

What would have been more interesting would have been to position Arbus’ work within an Australian context. Now there’s an idea, since we live in Australia!

Here we go: exhibit Arbus’ prints with 15 prints by Carol Jerrems (Vale Street, Mark and Flappers), 15 prints of the early work of Polixeni Papapetrou (drag queens, Elvis fans, circus performers and wrestlers) and 15 prints of the work of Sue Ford. Four strong women who deal with issues of gender and identity in a forthright manner – not a cacophony of noise (9 artists, 6 of them men) to accompany the work of a genius. Analyse the influence of Arbus on this generation of Australian photographers. Pretty simple. Clean, concise, accessible, relevant to Australia audiences. Then intention would have possibly met effect.

There are highlights to be had within this exhibition, two in particular.

It was a pleasure to see the work of Milton Rogovin. I have always admired his work, and the small, intimate prints from his Lower West Side series (1973-2002) did not disappoint. While Arbus’ portraits are powerful visualisations, front and centre, Rogovin’s working class families are just… present. His social documentary photographs of working class families are almost reticent in their rendition. “His classical portraits, often grouped in diptychs and triptychs, expound narrative in a single image and over time. They compress time intimately… and by that I mean the viewer is engaged in a conversation with the subject, where we can imagine that we live those lives as they do (transcending time), the lives of what Rogovin called “the forgotten ones.” He makes their countenance, their physicality, the hardships they endure, and their narrative, directly and intimately compelling. We are made to feel their plight in the now and the forever. For these photographs are as relevant, if not more so, now as then.”

The other highlight is to see three Arbus photographs that I have never seen before: Old black woman with gnarled hand; Large black family in small shack; and Addie Taylor in her shack, Beaufort, South Carolina (all 1968, installation views below), all three taken with flash. These works were a revelation for their observational intimacy and evocation of a dark place in the existence of the poorest of human beings. The gnarled hand of the old woman lying in a filthy bed with cardboard walls is particularly distressing to say the least. To compare these photographs with Walker Evans’ flash photograph Hudson Street boarding house detail, New York (1931, below) and his naturally aspirated Bedroom, shrimp fisherman’s house, Biloxi, Mississippi (1945, below) in their pristine emptiness is instructive. This ideation, together with Arbus’ photographs relationship to the work of her sometime teacher Lisette Model (particularly her Lower East Side photographs (1939-42); Albert-Alberta, Hubert’s 42nd St Flea Circus, New York (c. 1945) and Woman with Veil, San Francisco (1949) all below) are the zenith of this exhibition, where the intention of embedding Arbus’ photographs in the history of the medium come best to fruition, in effect.

Finally, I must say a big thank you to Heide Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to come out to the gallery to take the installation photographs. Many thanks indeed.

Marcus

.
Many thankx to Heide Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to publish some of the photographs in the posting. Please click on some of the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“People who met Arbus often said she was incredibly seductive. Immensely curious, she was softly spoken and her ability to connect with and gain the trust of people was legendary. She talked about “the gap between intention and effect”, explaining “it really is totally fantastic that we look like this and you sometimes see that very clearly in a photograph. Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it.””

.
Kerrie O’Brien, curator of the National Gallery of Australia’s Diane Arbus: American Portraits

 

“The people in an Arbus photograph are never trivialised; they have certainly a larger-than-life intensity that few other photographers can achieve. While they seem like figures from fairy tales or myth, they are also invested with powerful agency.”

.
Gillian Wearing

 

“When you’re awake enough to question your purpose and ask how to connect to it, you’re being prodded by the power of intention. The very act of questioning why you’re here is an indication that your thoughts are nudging you to reconnect to the field of intention. What’s the source of your thoughts about your purpose? Why do you want to feel purposeful? Why is a sense of purpose considered the highest attribute of a fully functioning person? The source of thought is an infinite reservoir of energy and intelligence.

In a sense, thoughts about your purpose are really your purpose trying to reconnect to you. This infinite reservoir of loving, kind, creative, abundant energy grew out of the originating intelligence, and is stimulating you to express this universal mind in your own unique way.”

.
Dr Wayne Dyer from ‘The Power of Intention’

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Photos: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

 

Heide is delighted to host the National Gallery of Australia’s touring exhibition, Diane Arbus: American Portraits.

The photographs of Diane Arbus (1923-71) are among the most widely recognised in the history of photography. Her images stand as powerful allegories of post-war America, and once seen are rarely forgotten. Works such as Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967 and Child with toy hand grenade, in Central Park, New York City have been described as two of ‘the most celebrated images in the history of the medium’.

Featuring 35 of Arbus’s most iconic and confrontational images from 1961-71, this exhibition examines the last decade of Arbus’s life,the period in which her style is in full flight. Her work has polarised viewers who question whether she exploited or empowered her subjects, who were often drawn from society’s margins. ‘The National Gallery of Australia is privileged to hold such an extraordinary collection of work by a photographer of Arbus’s significance,’ said Anne O’Hehir, curator. ‘This collection covers Arbus’s best-known pictures, and also includes images which are rarely seen. This exhibition is a testament to the power of Arbus’s extraordinary vision.’

Arbus’s photographs are exhibited alongside a selection of works by other leading American photographers whose work influenced Arbus, was shown alongside hers in the ’60s, or has been influenced by her. These include famous images by Lisette Model, Walker Evans and Weegee, her contemporaries William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Milton Rogovin as well as a slightly younger generation, work by Mary Ellen Mark and William Eggleston.

Heide Director and CEO Dr Natasha Cica said: ‘Heide is delighted to present this exhibition of the renowned photographer Diane Arbus. Her uncompromising view challenged existing photography conventions in a surprising and enchanting way.’

Press release from Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne with at left, Weegee’s No title (at a concert in Harlem) c. 1948, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1981 followed by William Klein’s Christmas shoppers, near Macy’s, New York 1954 and Stickball gang, New York 1955
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'No title (at a concert in Harlem)' c. 1948

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
No title (at a concert in Harlem)
c. 1948
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation views of William Klein’s Christmas shoppers, near Macy’s, New York 1954 and Stickball gang, New York 1955
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Installation view of William Klein (born April 19, 1928) 'Christmas shoppers, near Macy's, New York' 1954

 

Installation view of William Klein’s Christmas shoppers, near Macy’s, New York 1954 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1993
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

William Klein (born April 19, 1928) 'Christmas shoppers, near Macy's, New York' 1954

 

William Klein (born April 19, 1928)
Christmas shoppers, near Macy’s, New York
1954
Gelatin silver photograph

 

 

Klein sandwiched his relatively short photographic career, working as a fashion photographer for Vogue, between being a painter and a filmmaker. Self-taught, he experimented with flash, wide-angle lenses, blurring, abstraction and accidents, and produced grainy, high contrast prints. He is deliberately at the other end of the spectrum from the invisible, disinterested photographer. Klein deliberately got really close to his subjects, in their faces, and caught them reacting to being photographed on the street. ‘To be visible, intervene and show it’ was his mantra.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Installation view of William Klein's 'Stickball gang, New York' 1955

 

Installation view of William Klein’s Stickball gang, New York 1955 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1993
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

William Klein (born April 19, 1928) 'Stickball gang, New York' 1955

 

William Klein (born April 19, 1928)
Stickball gang, New York
1955
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne with at right, Weegee’s No title (at a concert in Harlem) c. 1948, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1981 and at left, his No title (listening to Frank Sinatra, Palace theatre) c. 1944, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1981
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne with at right, Weegee’s No title (at a concert in Harlem) c. 1948, followed by his No title (listening to Frank Sinatra, Palace theatre) c. 1944 and Emmett Kelly, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus 1943
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Emmett Kelly, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus' 1943 (installation view)

 

Installation view of Weegee’s Emmett Kelly, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus 1943, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1981
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'No title (listening to Frank Sinatra, Palace theatre)' c. 1944

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
No title (listening to Frank Sinatra, Palace theatre)
c. 1944
Silver gelatin print

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing the work of Walker Evans
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing from left to right, Diane Arbus’ Rocks on wheels, Disneyland, Cal 1962; Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963; and Lady in a rooming house parlour, Albion, N.Y. 1963, all National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1981
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Rocks on wheels, Disneyland, Cal' 1962

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Rocks on wheels, Disneyland, Cal
1962
Silver gelatin print

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing at left, Diane Arbus’ Muscle Man in his dressing room with trophy, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1962 and at right, Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J. 1963, both National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1981 and 1980
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Muscle Man in his dressing room with trophy, Brooklyn, N.Y.' 1962

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Muscle Man in his dressing room with trophy, Brooklyn, N.Y.
1962
Silver gelatin print

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Two Ladies at the Automat, New York City, 1966' 1966 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Two Ladies at the Automat, New York City, 1966 (installation view)
1966
Silver gelatin print
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Transvestite with torn stocking, N.Y.C. 1966' 1966 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Transvestite with torn stocking, N.Y.C. 1966 (installation view)
1966
Silver gelatin print
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Mae West on bed' 1965

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Mae West on bed
1965
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963' 1963 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963 (installation view)
1963
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963' 1963 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963 (installation view)
1963
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963' 1963

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963
1963
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing from left to right, Diane Arbus’A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970;Untitled (1) 1970-71; and Woman with a beehive hairdo 1965; and Mexican dwarf in his hotel room N.Y.C. 1970
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970' 1970

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970
1970
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Untitled (1)' 1970-71

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Untitled (1)
1970-71
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Mexican dwarf in his hotel room N.Y.C. 1970' 1970

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Mexican dwarf in his hotel room N.Y.C. 1970
1970
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1966' 1966

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1966
1966
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing from left to right, Diane Arbus’ Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967; A young man in curlers at home on West 20th St., N.Y.C. 1966; and A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, New York 1968
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967' 1967

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967
1967
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'A young man in curlers at home on West 20th St., N.Y.C. 1966' 1966 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
A young man in curlers at home on West 20th St., N.Y.C. 1966 (installation view)
1966
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'A young man in curlers at home on West 20th St., N.Y.C. 1966' 1966

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
A young man in curlers at home on West 20th St., N.Y.C. 1966 (installation view)
1966
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, New York 1968' 1968

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, New York 1968
1968
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing from left to right, Diane Arbus’ A young Negro boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965; Blonde girl in Washington Square Park c. 1965-68; Woman with a beehive hairdo 1965; and Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'A young Negro boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965' c. 1965

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
A young Negro boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965
c. 1965
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing from left to right, Diane Arbus’ Woman with a beehive hairdo 1965 and Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Woman with a beehive hairdo' 1965 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Woman with a beehive hairdo (installation view)
1965
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Woman with a beehive hairdo' 1965

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Woman with a beehive hairdo
1965
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965' 1965

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965
1965
Gelatin silver photograph

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Child with toy hand grenade, in Central Park, New York City 1962' 1962

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Child with toy hand grenade, in Central Park, New York City 1962
1962
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Old black woman with gnarled hand' 1968 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Old black woman with gnarled hand (installation view)
1968
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Large black family in small shack [Robert Evans and his family, 1968]' 1968 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Large black family in small shack [Robert Evans and his family, 1968] (installation view)
1968
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Addie Taylor in her shack, Beaufort, South Carolina' 1968 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Addie Taylor in her shack, Beaufort, South Carolina (installation view)
1968
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'A family of six at a nudist camp' c. 1963 (installation view)

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71)
A family of six at a nudist camp (installation view)
c. 1963
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

 

Introduction

The photographs of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) are powerful allegories of postwar America. Once seen they are rarely forgotten. Contemporary audiences found the way that Arbus approached the genre of portraiture confronting and her work continues to polarise opinion. The images raise difficult, uncomfortable questions concerning the intent of the photographer.

Arbus had a huge curiosity about the society around her; her favourite thing was ‘to go where I’ve never been’. As she was a photographer, this manifested as an obsessive exploration into what it means to photograph and be photographed, and what can happen at that moment of exchange – something elusive and a little bit magical. Whether Arbus is an empathetic champion of the outsider, or an exploitative voyeur, is something that each viewer alone must decide.

The National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Arbus photographs is among the most impressive in the world. The NGA is extremely fortunate to have bought 36 rare, vintage prints in 1980 and 1981, from the earliest releases of prints from the Arbus Estate. These works are from the last decade of the artist’s life, the period in which her recognisable style is in full flight and she was in total control of her medium.

These rare prints are shown alongside photographs by others who also sought to redefine the tradition of portraiture, and whose vision of America is also both challenging and moving. The work of these photographers relates to Arbus in a variety of ways: they are influencers, contemporaries or heirs to aspects of her worldview. Like Arbus, they are keen, singular observers of their worlds, transforming the sometimes banal and ugly into images of unexpected beauty.

 

An uncompromising view of the world

Diane Arbus was born Diane Nemerov, the daughter of wealthy Jewish New Yorkers; her father ran Russek’s, a department store on Fifth Avenue selling furs and women’s clothing. Growing up in an apartment in a towering building on Central Park West, her world was highly protected, one in which she never felt adversity. This was something Arbus resented both at the time and later; it seemed to her to be an unreal experience of the world. At 18 she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, and for a decade from the mid 1940s, they ran a successful photography studio doing fashion shots for leading picture magazines.

In 1956 Arbus ceased working with Allan in the studio and began instead to explore subjects of her own choice. She was, apart from the occasional class, essentially self-taught and as she struck out on her own, she undertook a detailed study of the work of other photographers. Compelled to confront that which had been off-limits in her own privileged childhood, she looked to other photographers who had confronted the world head-on, including Weegee, William Klein, Walker Evans and Lisette Model. They recorded, each in their own way, their surroundings with an at-times frightening candour. In their images, Arbus found an uncompromising view of the world, stripped of sentimentality.

Weegee

Weegee turns the banal and seedy underbelly of New York city streets after hours into moments of great psychological drama. A freelance news photographer, he supplied images to the popular press but was also well regarded in art circles. The Museum of Modern Art collected his work and exhibited it in 1943. Arbus owned a number of Weegee’s books and greatly admired his Runyonesque view of the world. She closely studied aspects of his working method as she formulated her own, especially his use of flash. His ‘wild dynamics’ made everyone else ‘look like an academician’, she wrote.

William Klein

Returning to New York in 1954 from his émigré life in Paris, Klein was at once taken aback by what he perceived to be a society pursuing purely materialistic goals, but also excited by the energy he found on the streets. Self-taught, he experimented with flash, wide-angle lenses, blurring and close-ups, abstraction and accidents, and produced grainy, high contrast prints. Klein’s 1956 book, Life is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, a copy of which Arbus owned, gave impetus to the emerging genre of street photography through his harsh, uncompromising vision of the city. His work was met, particularly in the United States, with misunderstanding and hostility.

Walker Evans

The writer James Agee travelled to Alabama in America’s South in 1936 to research an article on the plight of tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. He chose photographer Walker Evans to accompany him. The article did not eventuate but a book did, Let us now praise famous men. Both men were unnerved by what they saw: Agee wrote of ‘the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of … an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings’. And yet in the face of this, Evans made images of insistent frontality and careful symmetrical framing; devoid of cliché or pretention, and suggesting an impartiality. This gave the images a great authenticity and power.

Evans’ oeuvre is essentially concerned with how photography represents the world. His significance in the development of twentieth-century photography was reappraised during the 1960s, largely through the largesse of John Szarkowski, the head of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department at the time. Szarkowski argued that the foundations for many of the key aesthetic and formal tendencies of 1960s photography rested in Evans’ work. The catalogue that accompanied his 1938 exhibition American photographs, in particular, had a huge impact on the new generation of photographers, and on Arbus in particular. She met Evans in 1961 and visited him regularly at his New York home throughout the decade. He wrote in support of her 1963 Guggenheim Grant application.

Lisette Model

Lisette Model’s satirical portraits of the rich on the French Riviera and the photographs she made in the 1940s of the Lower East Side’s poor and marginalised bear out the fact that she took her own advice: ‘Don’t shoot ’till the subject hits you in the pit of your stomach’. By the 1950s she had largely turned to teaching and her influence on Arbus, who took a number of her classes at the New School in 1956 and again in 1957-58, was profound. Model encouraged Arbus to pursue her own distinctive voice. Model recalled, ‘One day I said to her, and I think this was very crucial, “originality means coming from the source…” And from then on, Diane was sitting there and – I’ve never in my life seen anybody – not listening to me but suddenly listening to herself through what was said.’

 

The gap between intention and effect

Prior to 1962 Arbus worked primarily with a 35mm Nikon camera. Her images at this time were often about gesture, with grainy images and subjects frequently shown in movement. In 1962 Arbus switched to a 2 ¼ inch medium-format, twin-lens Rolleiflex (later a Mamiyaflex), which she used with a flash and which when printed full-frame, gave the photographs a square format. The pictures she took with these cameras are deceptively, deliberately simple. Compositionally they are often masterful with repetitions of shapes and minutely observed, subtly presented details. Despite the confronting subject matter, her images have a classical stillness, an insistent frontality that she borrowed from classic documentary photography. To this Arbus adds a very deliberate use of the snap-shot aesthetic, with slightly tilted picture planes and people caught unawares, to signal the authenticity of her connection with the subject.

Arbus developed a working method and style that offered what amounts to a critique of the photographic portrait. There is a palpable tension in the way she presents her subjects, a complicity in the image-making process which rubs up against the fact that her subjects seem caught off-guard, unintentionally revealing aspects of themselves. Arbus identified this as ‘the gap between intention and effect’, explaining that ‘it really is totally fantastic that we look like this and you sometimes see that very clearly in a photograph. Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it’. Arbus’s ability to connect with and gain the trust of people is legendary. Fellow photographer Joel Meyerowitz felt that she was ‘an emissary from the world of feeling. She cared about these people. They felt that and gave her their secret’.

 

The aristocrats

As a student at the alternative Fieldston Ethical Culture School in the Bronx, Arbus developed a fascination with myths, ritual and public spectacle. This preoccupation remained steadfast throughout her life. For example, in 1963 she was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to document ‘American rites, manners and customs’. Arbus had an almost insatiable curiosity and fascination with the world and she sought to make photographs that addressed fundamental aspects of our humanity in the broadest terms. It was the photographer Lisette Model, with whom she studied in the late 1950s, who made her realise that, in a seemingly contradictory way, the more specific a photograph of something was, the more general its message became.

To this extent, it is notable that Arbus’s photographs rarely address the issues of the day in any overt and obvious way. While there are exceptions – for example, her work for magazines from the sixties, including portraits of celebrities and documentary work examining the plight of the poor in South Carolina – for the most part Arbus used the camera as a licence to enter the specifics of other people’s lives.

She was particularly drawn to marginalised people, who for whatever reason had fallen out of a conventional place in society and were forced (those born into disability) or chose (the nudists, for example) to construct their own identity. To find them, she frequented sideshow alleys and Hubert’s Freak Museum at Broadway and 42nd Street, joined nudist camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and visited seedy hotels; she also found them in public spaces, in streets and parks where social rules were often arbitrarily imposed and discarded.

Arbus’s subjects are often seen to play with society’s roles and restrictions. She classified these people as ‘aristocrats’, having achieved a certain freedom from social constraints, and they made her feel a mix of shame and awe.

 

The prints

Arbus stated that, for her, ‘the subject of the picture is more important than the picture’. There is no doubt that the emotional authenticity of what she photographed was of upmost importance. In keeping with this, she often undersold her skill as a photographer; she often complained of technical difficulties, and others frequently observed that she seemed weighed down by her equipment. In downplaying her relationship to the technical aspects of her work, Arbus sought to emphasise instead her rapport with her subjects. All the same, she was very clear about how she wanted her images to look; she worked hard to achieve a particular quality in her prints, which have a distinct feel and appearance that are quite different from other photographs of the 1960s.

From the mid 1960s, Arbus worked hard to emphasise the photographic-ness of her pictures. She modified the negative tray on her Omega ‘D’ enlarger, which produced the distinctive black border around her images; later again, she used strips of cardboard down the sides of the negatives to blur the edges of her images. Both of these techniques meant that each of her prints is slightly, wonderfully unique. And there is often, as in the cases of Woman with a beehive hairdo and Girl in a watch cap, both made in 1965, damage (tears and marks) on the negative that Arbus has made no effort to minimise or disguise. Close viewing of the collection of photographs held at the NGA reveal ghostly traces of the hand of Arbus. She reminds us consistently through a number of careful and deliberate strategies that we are looking at a photograph that has been made by a particular person.

 

To know life

Arbus was not alone in photographing the social landscape of America in the 1960s. Others, including Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Milton Rogovin, similarly took to the country’s streets. Rogovin’s life work was to photograph people from poor minority groups, much of his work being made in Buffalo, New York, where he himself lived. Like Arbus, he often knew and befriended his subjects, returning to photograph them over many years, collaborating with them to create images of great dignity and integrity.

Like Arbus, Winogrand and Friedlander were included in the landmark 1967 exhibition New documents, curated by John Szarkowski for the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This was the only major showing of Arbus’s work during her lifetime. While acknowledging that each of the artists in the exhibition had their own distinct styles, Szarkowski characterised them as part of a generation that used the documentary tradition ‘to more personal ends.’ As he wrote: ‘Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy – almost an affection – for the imperfections and frailties of society’.

An essential aspect of their innovation was the way they positioned photography and the acts of taking and viewing a photograph as an essential aspect of the work. Their photographs were not intended simply as windows to the world. As Winogrand noted when asked how he felt about missing photographs while he reloaded his camera, ‘there are no photographs while I’m reloading’. Winogrand, Friedlander and Arbus were fascinated by how the real was translated into the language of photography, and how the experience of the photograph involves a fascinating, multilayered three-way interaction between the photographer, the subject and the viewer.

Garry Winogrand

Winogrand restlessly prowled the same streets of New York as Arbus in the 1960s, working stealthily, capturing people without their knowledge. His viewpoint, one he asks the viewer to join, is unashamedly, unapologetically voyeuristic. He used a Leica M4 with a wide-angle lens and tipped the picture plane, giving his compositions a particular feel. Traumatised by the fraught political tensions of the cold war period, anxiety found its way into the imagery – lending his work an edge that makes for a compelling reading of an alienated and fearful society in the throes of change. His city is a site of unexpected confrontations and strange, witty juxtapositions. Fellow photographer Joel Meyerowitz remarked that Winogrand ‘set a tempo on the street so strong that it was impossible not to follow it. It was like jazz. You just had to get in the same groove’.

Lee Friedlander

Friedlander’s images are invariably about looking and this includes turning the camera on himself. He often intrudes into his hastily grabbed, ironic studies of the city, through reflection or shadow or a pair of shoes. Thus, the viewer of his photographs is constantly reminded that this is an image of the world that is made by someone, in this case, the photographer Lee Friedlander. The works are laconic, witty and intensely personal: and certainly the self-portraits are rarely flattering. Coming at the end of a decade in which a particular, new brand of art photographer had begun to achieve celebrity status, through the efforts of curators like John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, Friedlander’s self-portraits can also be seen as a shrewd send-up of fame.

Milton Rogovin

Originally trained as an optometrist, Rogovin began his career as a social documentary photographer in 1958, recording gospel services held in ‘store-front’ churches in the African-American neighbourhood of Buffalo, New York. Profoundly influenced as a young man by the impact of the Great Depression, Rogovin reflected that, ‘I could no longer be indifferent to the problems of the people, especially the poor, the forgotten ones’. He worked in collaboration with his subjects, who were always allowed to determine how they should be photographed. His photographs focus on family life, the celebrations and events that bind a community together, and the particulars of an individual’s existence.

 

The Arbus legacy

Arbus occupies an important place in the development of American photography. Her work has indelibly influenced the way that the documentary tradition has continued to evolve over the last 50 years, with many of the leading contemporary photographers, such as William Eggleston and Mary Ellen Mark, continuing to rethink the tradition, looking back to Arbus just as she looked back to her predecessors. Although it has often infuriated, and continues to do so, those who take issue with the way Arbus photographed the world, her impact on audiences and photographers alike is incontestable.

William Eggleston

While Arbus used the snap-shot aesthetic in her work to increase its aura of authenticity and immediacy, when Eggleston employed the same technique in colour without the abstraction and artistic mediation of black-and-white, contemporary audiences reacted with confusion. Careful observation of the images though reveals a masterful eye, and a sophisticated understanding of the way photography transforms the world. Eggleston’s images are at once monumental and mundane, ordinary and strange, prosaic and poetic. The result is luminous, breathtaking and perfectly banal.

Mary Ellen Mark

The photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark built a career photographing those on the fringes of society, seeking out those who she felt displayed what she described as attitude and often working on projects over many years, slowly earning trust. Her commitment was to give the people she photographed a unique voice, an individuality. Commenting on a body of work, Mark spoke of her desire to let her subjects ‘make contact with the outside world by letting them reach out and present themselves. I didn’t want to use them. I wanted them to use me’.

Mark spent months photographing the New York bar scene at night. This work formed the basis of her first one person exhibition, at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. She reflected at the time, ‘I would like to have the means to travel the whole country and show what America is through its bars. Millions of people who do not want or can not stay at home. The majority of clients are loners, which is why it is extremely difficult to work in these places. I had to make myself accepted’.

Text from the National Gallery of Australia website

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing at left, Lisette Model’s Coney Island Bather, New York 1939-41 and at right, Woman with Veil, San Francisco 1949
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983) 'Coney Island Bather, New York' [Baigneuse, Coney Island] c. 1939-1941

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983)
Coney Island Bather, New York [Baigneuse, Coney Island]
c. 1939-1941
Silver gelatin print
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983) 'Woman with Veil, San Francisco' 1949

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983)
Woman with Veil, San Francisco
1949
Silver gelatin print
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1978

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing at left, Lisette Model’s Lower East Side, New York
1942 and at right,Lower East Side, New York 1939-42
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983) 'Lower East Side, New York' 1942

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983)
Lower East Side, New York
1942
Gelatin silver photograph
49.2 h x 39.5 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1978

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983) 'Lower East Side, New York' 1939-42

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983)
Lower East Side, New York
1939-42
Gelatin silver photograph
48.9 h x 38.9 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1978

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing from left to right, Lisette Model’s Fashion show, Hotel Pierre, New York City 1940-46; Cafe Metropole, New York City c. 1946; and Albert-Alberta, Hubert’s 42nd St Flea Circus, New York [Albert/Alberta] c. 1945
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983) 'Fashion show, Hotel Pierre, New York City' 1940-46

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983)
Fashion show, Hotel Pierre, New York City
1940-46
Gelatin silver photograph
40.0 h x 49.6 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1978

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983) 'Cafe Metropole, New York City' c. 1946

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983)
Cafe Metropole, New York City
c. 1946
Gelatin silver photograph
49.5 h x 40.0 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1978

 

 

While training as a musician in Vienna, Lisette Model studied under the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, who introduced her to the Expressionist painters of the early 20th century. Influenced by European modernist philosophy and aesthetics, Model abandoned music in Paris in 1933, taking up painting and then photography. She gained initial renown for a series of photographs of men and women lounging in deck chairs along the Promenade des Anglais in the south of France. In 1938, she relocated to New York with her husband (the artist Evsa Model), where she took photographs of exuberant characters on the streets of New York – catching reflections of individuals in store windows and images of feet in motion and holidaymakers around Coney Island. Model taught at the New School where one of her most famous students was Diane Arbus, and was published by Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines.

Text from the Artsy website

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983) 'Albert-Alberta, Hubert's 42nd St Flea Circus, New York' c. 1945

 

Lisette Model (1901-1983)
Albert-Alberta, Hubert’s 42nd St Flea Circus, New York [Albert/Alberta]
c. 1945
Gelatin silver photograph
49.5 h x 39.7 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing work from Mary Ellen Mark’s The bar series 1977
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) 'Untitled' from 'The bar series' 1977

 

Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015)
Untitled from The bar series
1977
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing from left to right, William Eggleston’s Huntsville, Alabama c. 1971; Memphis c. 1969; and Greenwood, Mississippi “The Red Ceiling” 1973
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

William Eggleston (America,born July 27, 1939) 'Huntsville, Alabama' c. 1971

 

William Eggleston (American, born July 27, 1939)
Huntsville, Alabama
c. 1971
Dye transfer colour photograph
46.6 h x 32.4 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

William Eggleston (America, born July 27, 1939) 'Memphis' c. 1970 printed 1980

 

William Eggleston (American, born July 27, 1939)
Memphis
c. 1970 printed 1980
Dye transfer colour photograph
30.2 h x 44.2 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

William Eggleston (America,born July 27, 1939) 'Greenwood, Mississippi' ["The Red Ceiling"] 1973, printed 1979

 

William Eggleston (American, born July 27, 1939)
Greenwood, Mississippi [“The Red Ceiling”]
1973, printed 1979
Dye transfer colour photograph
29.5 h x 45.4 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

 

With its intense red, Eggleston’s picture of the spare room in a friend’s home is one of the most iconic of all colour photographs. Often called The red room, this photograph was intended to be shocking: Eggleston described the effect of the colour as like ‘red blood that is wet on the wall’. But the radicalness of the picture is not just in its juicy (and impossible to reproduce) redness; it is also found in the strange view it provides of a domestic interior, one that Eggleston has described as a ‘fly’s eye view’.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing the work of Garry Winogrand
Photos: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) 'No title [Centennial Ball, Metropolitan Museum, New York]' 1969

 

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984)
No title [Centennial Ball, Metropolitan Museum, New York]
1969
Gelatin silver photograph
27.2 h x 42.0 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) 'New York City, New York'. From "Garry Winogrand" 1970

 

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984)
New York City, New York. From “Garry Winogrand”
1970
Gelatin silver photograph
21.6 h x 32.6 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1978

 

 

Winogrand was asked how he felt about missing photographs while he reloaded his camera. He replied ‘There are no photographs while I’m reloading’: There is no possibility in the Winograndian world view of regarding the camera as a window onto the world; it becomes a mirror reflecting back the photographer’s concerns. Winogrand was fascinated by how the real was translated into the photographic. In the end this fascination became an obsession from which he could not escape or find solace – or meaning. At the time of his death there were a third of a million exposures that he had never looked at including 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing the work of Lee Friedlander
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Lee Friedlander (born July 14, 1934) 'Rt. 9w, N.Y.' 1969

 

Lee Friedlander (American, born July 14, 1934)
Rt. 9w, N.Y.
1969
Gelatin silver photograph
18.8 h x 28.2 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

Lee Friedlander (born United States 1934) 'Mount Rushmore' 1969

 

Lee Friedlander (American, born July 14, 1934)
Mount Rushmore
1969
Gelatin silver photograph
18.8 h x 28.0 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1981

 

 

“I always wanted to be a photographer. I was fascinated with the materials. But I never dreamed I would be having this much fun. I imagined something much less elusive, much more mundane.” ~ Lee Friedlander

Friedlander is known for his complex, layered images, exploring the way that the urban landscape fragments our vision. Throughout his career he has found endless fascination in photographing reflections in windows – merging what lies behind the glass with what is reflected in it – out of which he has created juxtapositions which are witty and insightful. He often inserts himself into the image, either overtly or more frequently as a shadow or partially concealed form – part of his face, for instance, hidden behind the camera.

In the 1960s he moved away from a recognisably documentary style toward one in which the subject is more elusive, reflecting a society which had itself become more fragmented and complex. By cropping and cutting up city and natural landscapes he changes our perception of them. In creating compositions that are dynamic, unexpected and often confusing, Friedlander asks us to look freshly at our everyday environments.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing the work of Walker Evans
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Hudson Street boarding house detail, New York' 1931

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Hudson Street boarding house detail, New York
1931
Gelatin silver photograph
15.7 h x 20.6 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Bedroom, shrimp fisherman's house, Biloxi, Mississippi' 1945

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Bedroom, shrimp fisherman’s house, Biloxi, Mississippi
1945
Gelatin silver photograph
23.4 h x 18.3 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Tenant Farmer's Wife, Alabama' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Tenant Farmer’s Wife, Alabama
[Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of a cotton sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama]

1936
Gelatin silver photograph
23.6 h x 18.0 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1978

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: American Portraits' at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Diane Arbus: American Portraits at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne showing the work of Milton Rogovin with from left to right, Not titled (Family in front of house) – 241-2 1973 and Not titled (Family in front of house) – 142-11 1985, both from the Lower West Side series (1973-2002)
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and Heide Museum of Modern Art

 

 

“Written with her trademark flair and force, Sontag’s book [On Photography] inaugurated a wave of criticism, much of it influenced by Foucaultian theory, that underscored the instrumentality and implicit violence of photography, its ability to police and regulate it subjects, especially those lacking social and political power: the poor, presumed “deviants” or “criminals,” and workers. As Sontag herself acknowledged, however, photography is not only a predatory means of taking possession, but also a mode of conferring value; it can potentially be put to counter-hegemonic uses, used to see and frame in ways that affirm and legitimate, rather than strictly contain and control, the presence of culturally disenfranchised persons.”

“The power of his art stems from the particular manner in which Rogovin transforms traditional portrait photography and documentary practice, opening up potentially instrumentalist, one-sided visual forms to dynamics of reciprocity and mutuality…”

“Rogovin’s photography thus balances the documentary desire to grasp and present, to “capture” an image of the”Other,” with a commitment to holding back in order to allow his subjects space to shape the photographic process. His practice is a form of”approach,” to borrow a term from Carol Shloss, that resists even as it engages. We might call this an aesthetic of “making space”: a photographic method that creates room for subjects to actively participate in the production of their own images rather than stand as passive objects before a colonizing gaze.”

“The fact that Rogovin’s work at once invokes and questions the camera’s capacity to classify – to embed individuals in a larger archive – echoes his challenge to documentary business as usual. Certainly, Rogovin’s images of working people perform a classic documentary task: to lend public visibility to those who have been overlooked and exploited, to give aggrieved people the social recognition they are otherwise denied in our society. However, his images do not enforce the power and prerogatives of middle-class reformers or governmental institutions, as did so much early twentieth-century documentary photography, which, as Maren Stange has argued, tended to reassure “a 11 liberal middle-class that social oversight was both its duty and its right.” By refusing to provide pity-inducing images of working people that present them as weak and vulnerable, Rogovin’s photographs undercut the sense of privilege viewers often feel when looking at pictures of what Jacob Riis called “the other half.””

Joseph Entin. “Milton Rogovin’s Approach: Photography, Class, and the Aesthetics of Making Space (2008),” on the ASX website July 12, 2010 [Online] Cited 12/05/2018

 

 

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24
Jun
14

Exhibition: ‘Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa’ at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Exhibition dates: 21st February – 29th June 2014

Exhibition artists

Public Intimacy presents

  • Photography by Ian Berry, Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Terry Kurgan, Sabelo Mlangeni, Santu Mofokeng, Billy Monk, Zanele Muholi, Lindeka Qampi, Jo Ractliffe, and Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
  • Video works by William Kentridge, Donna Kukama, Anthea Moys, and Berni Searle
  • Painting and sculpture by Nicholas Hlobo and Penny Siopis
  • Puppetry by Handspring Puppet Company
  • Publications, prints, graphic works, and public interventions by Chimurenga, ijusi (Garth Walker), Anton Kannemeyer, and Cameron Platter
  • Performances by Athi-Patra Ruga, Kemang Wa Lehulere, and Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie with Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre

 

Continuing my fascination with South African art and photography, here is another exhilarating collection of work from an exhibition jointly arranged between SFMOMA and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. This art has so much joy, life, movement and “colour”. I particularly like The Future White Women of Azania series by Athi-Patra Ruga, who presented his work at the 55th Venice Biennale in the African pavilion. Images of his incredible tapestries can be found on the Whatiftheworld website, and photographs of his installation at the WhatIfTheWorld Gallery can be found on the Empty Kingdom website. Thank god not another rehashed colonial image, even though he is working with the tropes of myth and the history of Africa as a contemporary response to the post-apartheid era.

Marcus

.
Many thankx to SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for allowing me to publish the installation photographs in the posting. Most of the other photographs were gathered from the internet. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

“Disrupting expected images of South Africa, the 25 contemporary artists and collectives featured in Public Intimacy eloquently explore the poetics and politics of the everyday. This collaboration with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents pictures from SFMOMA’s collection of South African photography alongside works in a broad range of media, including video, painting, sculpture, performance, and publications – most made in the last five years, and many on view for the first time on the West Coast. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa, Public Intimacy reveals the nuances of human interaction in a country still undergoing significant change, vividly showing public life there in a more complex light.”

Text from the SFMOMA website

 

 

Santu Mofokeng. 'Opening Song, Hand Clapping and Bells' 1986

 

Santu Mofokeng
Opening Song, Hand Clapping and Bells
1986
From the series Train Church
Pigment print
9 13/16 x 13 3/4 in. (25 x 35 cm)
© Santu Mofokeng

 

Santu Mofokeng. 'Leading in Song, Johannesburg - Soweto Line' 1986

 

Santu Mofokeng
Leading in Song, Johannesburg – Soweto Line
1986
From the series Train Church
Pigment print
9 13/16 x 13 3/4 in. (25 x 35 cm)
© Santu Mofokeng

 

Santu Mofokeng. 'Hands in Worship, Johannesburg - Soweto Line' 1986

 

Santu Mofokeng
Hands in Worship, Johannesburg – Soweto Line
1986
From the series Train Church
Pigment print
9 13/16 x 13 3/4 in. (25 x 35 cm)
© Santu Mofokeng

 

Santu Mofokeng. 'Supplication, Johannesburg - Soweto Line' 1986

 

Santu Mofokeng
Supplication, Johannesburg – Soweto Line
1986
From the series Train Church
Pigment print
9 13/16 x 13 3/4 in. (25 x 35 cm)
© Santu Mofokeng

 

Ian Berry. 'Guests at a 'moffie'drag party' Cape Town, South Africa, 1960

 

Ian Berry
Guests at a ‘moffie’drag party
Cape Town, South Africa, 1960
Silver gelatin photograph

 

Billy Monk. 'The Catacombs, 30 September 1967' 1967, printed 2011

 

Billy Monk
The Catacombs, 30 September 1967
1967, printed 2011
Gelatin silver print
10 1/16 x 14 15/16 in. (25.56 x 37.94 cm)
Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase
© Estate of Billy Monk

 

Billy Monk. 'The Catacombs, 5 February 1968' 1968, printed 2011

 

Billy Monk
The Catacombs, 5 February 1968
1968, printed 2011
Gelatin silver print
11 x 16 in. (27.94 x 40.64 cm)
Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
© Estate of Billy Monk

 

Zanele Muholi. 'Nomonde Mbusi, Berea, Johannesburg' 2007

 

Zanele Muholi
Nomonde Mbusi, Berea, Johannesburg
2007
From the Faces and Phases series
Gelatin silver print
23 13/16 in. x 34 1/16 in. (60.5 cm x 86.5 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
© Zanele Muholi

 

Zanele Muholi, born 1972

Muholi’s work addresses the reality of what it is to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) in South Africa. She identifies herself as a visual activist, dealing with issues of violation, violence and prejudice that she and her community face, despite South Africa’s progressive constitution.

In Faces and Phases, she sets out to give visibility to black lesbians and to celebrate the distinctiveness of individuals through the traditional genre of portraiture. The portraits are taken outdoors with a hand-held camera to retain spontaneity and often shown in a grid to highlight difference and diversity. In the series Beulahs, she shows young gay men, wearing Zulu beads and other accessories usually worn by women, who invert normative gender codes in both costume and pose. At the same time her photographs evoke tourist postcards and recycled stereotypes of Africans and recall traditional anthropological and ethnographic iconography.

Faces and Phases, is a group of black and white portraits that I have been working on from 2006 until now – it has become a lifetime project. The project is about me, the community that I’m part of. I was born in the township: I grew up in that space. Most of us grew up in a household where heterosexuality was the norm. When you grow up, you think that the only thing that you have to become as a maturing girl or woman is to be with a man; you have to have children, and also you need to have lobola or “bride price” paid for you. For young men, the expectation for them is to be with women and have wives and procreate: that’s the kind of space which most of us come from. We are seen as something else by society – we are seen as deviants. We’re not going to be here forever, and I wanted to make sure that we leave a history that is tangible to people who come after us.’

Zanele Muholi, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010.
Text from the V & A website

 

David Goldblatt. 'Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg' 1975

 

David Goldblatt
Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg
1975
Pigment inkjet print
23 5/8 in. x 29 1/2 in. (60 cm x 75 cm)
Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase
© David Goldblatt.

 

 

Jointly organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa brings together 25 artists and collectives who disrupt expected images of a country known through its apartheid history. The exhibition features an arc of artists who look to the intimate encounters of daily life to express the poetics and politics of the “ordinary act,” with work primarily from the last five years as well as photographic works that figure as historical precedents. On view at YBCA February 21 through June 29, 2014, Public Intimacy presents more than 200 works in a wide range of mediums, many of them making U.S. or West Coast debuts.

The exhibition joins SFMOMA’s important and growing collection of South African photography with YBCA’s multidisciplinary purview and continued exploration of the Global South. Significant documentary photography is paired with new photographs and work in other mediums, including video, painting, sculpture, performance, and publications, to reveal the multifaceted nuances of everyday life in a country still undergoing significant change. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa, Public Intimacy looks at the way artists imagine present and future possibilities in South Africa. A new orientation emerges through close-up views of street interactions, portraiture, fashion and costume, unfamiliar public actions, and human imprints on the landscape.

The exhibition’s three curators – Betti-Sue Hertz, director of visual arts at YBCA; Frank Smigiel, associate curator of public programs at SFMOMA; and Dominic Willsdon, Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs at SFMOMA – developed the show after visits to South Africa, where they met with artists, curators, and critics. The exhibition – and a companion publication to be published in fall 2014 – grew out of this research.

“Although South Africa’s political history remains vital to these artists and is important for understanding their work, Public Intimacy offers a more subtle view of the country through personal moments,” said Hertz. “It goes against expectations in order to reveal the smaller gestures and illuminate how social context has affected artists and how they work.”

“The familiar image of contemporary South Africa as a place of turmoil is, of course, not the whole story,” added Willsdon. “The art in this exhibition restages how those violent incidents fit in the broader realm of human interactions – a way of showing public life there in a more complex light.”

“Another central aspect of the exhibition is live performance,” said Smigiel. “Three major live works will unfold both in and outside the gallery context, offering a way to situate and reframe San Francisco through the lens of what artists are producing in South Africa.”

Public Intimacy is part of SFMOMA’s collaborative museum exhibitions and extensive off-site programming taking place while its building is temporarily closed for expansion construction through early 2016. As neighbors across Third Street in San Francisco, YBCA and SFMOMA have partnered in the past on various performance and exhibition projects, but Public Intimacy represents the deepest collaboration of shared interests to date between the two institutions. It also brings together SFMOMA’s approach to curating live art and YBCA’s multidisciplinary interest in exhibitions, social practice, and performances.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa' at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Installation view of the exhibition 'Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa' at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Installation view of the exhibition 'Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa' at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Installation view of the exhibition 'Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa' at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Installation view of the exhibition 'Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa' at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Installation view of the exhibition 'Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa' at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

 

Installation views of the exhibition Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco with, in the last photo, Nicholas Hlobo, Umphanda ongazaliyo (installation view), 2008; rubber, ribbon, zips, steel, wood, plaster; ICA Boston; © Nicholas Hlobo; photo: John Kennar.

 

 

Exhibition highlights

While the exhibition explores new approaches to daily life in post-apartheid South Africa, it also makes visible the continued commitment of artists to activism and contemporary politics. Beginning with photographs from the late 1950s and after, the exhibition includes vital moments in the country’s documentary photography – from Ian Berry’s inside look at an underground drag ball to Billy Monk’s raucous nightclub photos – each capturing a moment of celebration within different social strata of South African society. Ernest Cole’s photographs of miners’ hostels and bars and Santu Mofokeng’s stirring photographs of mobile churches on commuter trains reveal everyday moments both tender and harsh.

David Goldblatt’s photographs depict the human landscape in apartheid and after, providing the genesis of the idea of “public intimacy.” Over decades of photographs in urban, suburban, and rural locations, Goldblatt has chronicled the changing nature of interpersonal engagement in South Africa. At the same time, they provide a historical backdrop and visual precedent for other artists in the exhibition, including Zanele Muholi and Sabelo Mlangeni.

Muholi has won several awards for her powerful photographic portraits as well as her activism on behalf of black lesbians in South Africa. Although best known for her photographs – in particular her Faces and Phases series – Muholi continuously experiments with an expanded practice including documentary film, beadwork, text, and her social-action organization Inkanyiso, which gives visibility to conditions facing lesbians of color in her country. “Sexual politics has been looked at less than racial politics in South Africa, but in many ways, the two have always been intertwined,” said Willsdon.

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse bring another perspective to the upheavals of life in the city of Johannesburg with works from their Ponte City (2008-10) series, comprised of photographs, video, and a publication offering various views of this centrally located and iconic 54-story building. The works illustrate the struggles facing many native and immigrant South Africans in the years following the dissolution of apartheid, including stalled economic growth and social opportunities.

In contrast to the daily realities pictured in photographic works in the exhibition, Athi-Patra Ruga’s ongoing performance series The Future White Women of Azania (2010-present) features fantastical characters – usually played by the artist – whose upper bodies sprout colorful balloons while their lower bodies pose or process in stockings and high heels. Ruga’s Azania is a changing utopia, and Smigiel notes the shift: “The balloons are filled with liquid, and as the figure moves through the streets, they start popping, so the character dissolves and reveals a performer, and the liquid spills out and into a rather sloppy line drawing.” A new iteration of the series, The Elder of Azania, will premiere in the YBCA Forum during the exhibition’s opening weekend.

Chimurenga, an editorial collective working at the intersection of pan-African culture, art, and politics produces publications, events, and installations. Founded in 2002 by Ntone Edjabe, the collective has created the Chimurenga Library, an online archiving project that profiles independent pan-African paper periodicals from around the world. Expanding upon this concept, their presence in Public Intimacy will have two elements: a text and media resource space in YBCA’s galleries and an intervention at the San Francisco Public Library main branch that will explore the history of pan-African culture in the Bay Area, scheduled to open in late May.

Providing one of the most personally vulnerable moments in the exhibition, Penny Siopis’s series of 90 small paintings on enamel, Shame (2002), provokes a visceral reaction. With red paint reminiscent of blood and bruises, Siopis mixes color and text in an attempt to convey emotion rather than narrative. While she is interested in the guilt and embarrassment most frequently associated with shame, she also looks at the possibility for empathy that emerges from traumatic experiences.

In all of these works, explains Hertz, “We are looking at how art and activism align, but we’re also interested in how politics is embedded in less obviously political practices, such as Sabelo Mlangeni’s photographs of mining workers’ hostels, Penny Siopis’s powerful painting series about human vulnerability, or Nicholas Hlobo’s large-scale, organically shaped sculptures made primarily of rubber.”

Text from the SFMOMA website

 

Sabelo Mlangeni. 'Couple Bheki and Sipho' 2009

 

Sabelo Mlangeni
Couple Bheki and Sipho
2009
From the series Country Girls
Gelatin silver print
40 x 30 cm
Courtesy the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
© Sabelo Mlangeni

 

 

Figures & Fictions: Sabelo Mlangeni from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

 

Anton Kannemeyer. 'D is for dancing ministers' 2006

 

Anton Kannemeyer
D is for dancing ministers
2006
From the series Alphabet of Democracy
Lithograph on Chine Collé
22 1/16 x 24 in. (56 x 61 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
© Anton Kannemeyer

 

Terry Kurgan. 'Hotel Yeoville' 2012

 

Terry Kurgan
Hotel Yeoville
2012
Digital print on bamboo hahnemulle paper
Courtesy the artist
© Terry Kurgan

 

Penny Siopis. 'Untitled' from the series 'Shame' 2002

 

Penny Siopis
Untitled from the series Shame
2002
Paint on enamel
© Penny Siopis

 

Athi-Patra Ruga. 'The Future White Women of Azania' 2012

 

Athi-Patra Ruga
The Future White Women of Azania
2012
Performed as part of Performa Obscura in collaboration with Mikhael Subotzky
Commissioned for the exhibition Making Way, Grahamstown, South Africa
Photo: Ruth Simbao, courtesy Athi-Patra Ruga and WHATIFTHEWORLD/GALLERY

 

Athi-Patra Ruga. 'The Future White Women of Azania' 2012

 

Athi-Patra Ruga
The Future White Women of Azania
2012
Performed as part of Performa Obscura in collaboration with Mikhael Subotzky
Commissioned for the exhibition Making Way, Grahamstown, South Africa
Photo: Ruth Simbao, courtesy Athi-Patra Ruga and WHATIFTHEWORLD/GALLERY

 

Athi-Patra Ruga. 'The Night of the Long Knives I' 2013



 

Athi-Patra Ruga
The Night of the Long Knives I
2013


Archival inkjet Print on Photorag Baryta
202 x 157 cm

 

“The Future White Woman of Azania is an ongoing series of performances first conceived in 2010 and evolving to engage new definitions of nationhood in relation to the autonomous body. In the enactment of the site-specific work commissioned for the 55th Venice Biennale, the performance takes the form of an absurdist funerary procession. The participants are the ABODADE – the sisterhood order of Azania and the central protagonist – The Future White Woman.

“Azania, as a geographic location, is first described in 1stCentury Greek records of navigation and trade, The Peryplus of the Erythrean Sea and is thought to refer to a portion of the East and Southern African coast. The word Azania itself is thought to have been derived from an Arabic word referring to the ‘dark-skinned inhabitants of Africa.’

Azania is then eulogised in the black consciousness movement as a pre-colonial utopian black homeland – this Promised Land, referenced in struggle songs, political sermons and African Nationalist speeches. In Cold War pop culture, Marvel Comics used Azania as a fictional backdrop to a Liberation story that bares a close resemblance to the situation that was Apartheid in Old South Africa… so it is at once a mythical and faintly factual place/state that this performance unfolds… Who are the Azanians for what it’s worth? It is in this liminal state that the performance unfolds…”

Seeking to radically reimage the potential of Azania and its inhabitants, the performance questions the mythical place that we mourn for and asks who its future inhabitants may be. Using the “Nation-Finding language of pomp and procession,” Ruga proposes a bold and iconoclastic break with the past Utopian promise of the elders and instead presents us with a new potential and hybridity.”

Text from the Athi-Patra Ruga blog

 

Athi-Patra Ruga. 'Uzuko' 2013


 

Athi-Patra Ruga
Uzuko
2013
Wool, thread and artificial flowers on tapestry canvas
200 x 180 cm

 

 

“Athi-Patra Ruga is one of a handful of artists, working in South Africa today, who has adopted the tropes of myth as a contemporary response to the post-apartheid era. Ruga has always worked with creating alternative identities that sublimate marginalized experience into something strangely identifiable.

In The Future White Women of Azania he is turning his attention to an idea intimately linked to the apartheid era’s fiction of Azania – a Southern African decolonialised arcadia. It is a myth that perhaps seems almost less attainable now than when the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) appropriated the name in 1965 as the signifier of an ideal future South Africa – then at least was a time to dream more optimistically largely because the idea seemed so infinitely remote.

But Ruga, in his imaginings of Azania, has stuck closer to the original myth, situating it in Eastern Africa as the Roman, Pliny the Elder, did in the first written record of the name. Here Ruga in his map The Lands of Azania (2014-2094) has created lands suggestive of sin, of decadence and current politics. Countries named Palestine, Sodom, Kuntistan, Zwartheid and Nunubia are lands that reference pre-colonial, colonial and biblical regions with all their negative and politically disquieting associations. However, in what seems like something of a response to the ‘politically’ embroidered maps of the Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti, Ruga infers that the politicization of words are in a sense prior to the constructed ideology of the nation state.

What is more Azania is a region of tropical chromatic colours, which is populated with characters whose identities are in a state of transformation. At the centre of the panoply of these figures stands The Future White Woman whose racial metamorphosis, amongst a cocoon of multi-coloured balloons, suggests something disturbing, something that questions the processes of a problematic cultural assimilation. And it is here that the veracity of the myth of a future arcadia is being disputed if not entirely rejected.

To be sure, unlike Barthes’ suggestion in his essay ‘Myth Today’, Ruga is not creating myth in an act that depoliticizes, simplifying form in order to perpetuate the idea of an erroneous future ‘good society’. Instead, placing himself in amongst the characters in a lavish self portrait Ruga imagines himself into the space of the clown or jester (much like the Rococo painter Watteau did in his painting ‘Giles’), into the space of interpreter as well as a cultural product of the forces outside of his own control.

Ruga’s Azania is a world of confusing transformations whose references are Rococo and its more modern derivative Pop. But whatever future this myth is foreshadowing, with its wealth, its tropical backdrop, its complicated and confusing identities, it is not a place of peaceful harmony – or at least not one that is easily recognizable. As Ruga adumbrated at a recent studio visit, his generation’s artistic approach of creating myths or alternative realities is in some ways an attempt to situate the traumas of the last 200 years in a place of detachment. That is to say at a farsighted distance where their wounds can be contemplated outside of the usual personalized grief and subjective defensiveness.”

Statement from WHATIFTHEWORLD.com on the Empty Kingdom website

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. 'Ponte City from Yeoville Ridge' 2008

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
Ponte City from Yeoville Ridge
2008
Lightjet chromogenic print
Courtesy the artists and Goodman Gallery
© Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. 'Ponte City, Johannesburg' 2008

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
Ponte City, Johannesburg
2008
Lightjet chromogenic print
Courtesy the artists and Goodman Gallery
© Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. 'Ponte City, Johannesburg' 2008

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
Ponte City, Johannesburg
2008
Lightjet chromogenic print
Courtesy the artists and Goodman Gallery
© Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. 'Cleaning the Core, Ponte City, Johannesburg' 2008

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
Cleaning the Core, Ponte City, Johannesburg
2008
Lightjet chromogenic print
49 7/16 x 59 1/16 in. (125.5 x 150 cm)
Courtesy the artists and Goodman Gallery
© Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. 'Untitled I, Ponte City, Johannesburg' 2008

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
Untitled I, Ponte City, Johannesburg
2008
Lightjet chromogenic print
Courtesy the artists and Goodman Gallery
© Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse

 

Originally intended as a nuclear point in the upwardly mobile social cartography of Johannesburg’s Hillbrow, the 173 meter-high cylindrical apartment building Ponte City became an urban legend, and an essential part of visual renderings of the city. It was the conflicted spectacle of Ponte City that drew South African photographer, Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, a British artist, to look more closely in rather than at the tower.

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. 'Lift Portrait 2, Ponte City, Johannesburg (0328)' 2008

 

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
Lift Portrait 2, Ponte City, Johannesburg (0328)
2008
C-print mounted on Dibond
124 cm x 151.5 cm

 

 

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Opening hours:
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Thursday -€“ Saturday noon – 8.00 pm
Free First Tuesday of the month noon – 8.00 pm

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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