A dual dive into the depths of depiction
with Jabulani Dhlamini + Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo
Although ten years apart, there are similarities in Jabulani Dhlamini and Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo’s practices. Featured in this year’s Re:View, we consider the ways their exhibition iHubo: Nkosi Sikelela examines the relationship between space and memory in contemporary South Africa.
Jabulani Dhlamini and Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo are artists working in photography. Documentary: Dhlamini approach to photography acknowledges the difference between memories and histories. In his hands the camera’s framing function works at complicating the clumsy line between domestic and institutional encounters. Abstract, and partially participatory, Hlatshwayo’s photography practice relies on the physical engagement that people have with photography. After taking a photograph, Hlatshwayo prints it, then leaves it in private/ public spaces, like his neighbourhood shebeen, for patrons to leave their marks on it.
In 2010, Ivan Vladislavić’s and David Goldblatt published a joint project. Titled TJ, Goldblatt’s text presented a series of 300 photographs drawn from more than six decades of documenting Johannesburg and its people. Speculative fiction, Vladislavić’s Double Negative responded to the images by weaving a plot where a young writer encounters a seasoned photographer that influences the weight he approaches other people’s stories. The one a novelist and the other a renowned photographer, the project posed questions about perceiving and being perceived.
Somewhere in Vladislavić’s text, he writes, “Sometimes photographs annihilate memory; they swallow the available light and cast everything around them into shadow. Two of Saul Auerbach’s images were like shutters on my mind: Veronica in the yard in Emerald Street, Mrs Ditton in her lounge in Fourth Avenue. Dense with my own experience, but held there in suspension, in chemically altered form. If I could seize them for myself, my time and place would spurt like juice between my fingers. But how to reach through the frame?…The new South Africa was a bewildering place. For a while, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. The parenthetical age had dawned, the years of qualification and revision, when the old versions of things trailed behind the new ones in brackets, fading identities and spent meanings, dogging the footsteps of the present like poor relations. Sometimes the ghosts went ahead suddenly, as if the sun had reeled to the wrong horizon in a moment and left you following your own shadow down the street.”
An intergenerational project, Dhlamini and Hlatshwayo’s iHubo: Nkosi Sikelela at Goodman Gallery asks the same questions from a Black South African perspective.
Historically considered a neutral medium, contemporary art has surfaced photography’s bias potential. Demonstrating this, both Dhlamini and Hlatshwayo employ framing. At times too far and in other instances too close, in a way that is intentional, their framing coaxes audiences to further seek out the contexts and subjects they document. Take Hlatshwayo’s Hair in the clouds (2022). A constellation of coily hair debris on an ambiguous surface, the image tells its audience nothing else. A portrait of chaos, filled with various protagonists from varying narratives, the woman foregrounded in Dhlamini’s I Skhumbuzo, Phela Ndaba Cemetery, Sharpeville (2022) is the image of stillness. Aware of her surroundings, she is perhaps grounded by personal circumstances, those unseen by this document.
A type of praise poetry indigenous to South Africa, iHubo is a reflection of current times, rooted in an awareness of past events. The title of Hlatshwayo and Dhlamini’s collaboration, it acts both as praise (for our collective efforts at surviving) and prayer (for our deliverance).