“New Story December 2022”

by Pieter Hugo

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Pieter Hugo is an artist working in the medium of photography to make portraits. Spanning two decades, his photographic practice investigates “the lexicons of forensics, surveillance and typologies while keeping a strong humanism at their core’. A survey of the last twenty years, his current solo exhibition Polyphonic offers his findings. Featured in this week’s Re:View, we use it to examine why engaging with or making portraiture is an exercise in relativity. A festival for some, a crusade, cultural gathering or pilgrimage for others, Burning Man is an annual city-scale occurrence established to celebrate surrealist counterculture and self-expression as a means of community building. Taking place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Burning Man is governed by 10 principles:  inclusion, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, immediacy (urgency), participation and leaving no trace. With Project Aikido recently taking contemporary African art to Burning Man, we spotlight it in this week’s Artist Of Interest.

Portraits have purpose. In passbooks or passports, mugshots or missing person posters, portraits fulfill a bureaucratic function. In more human instances, portraits can memorialise a moment. But in all the instances presented for Pieter Hugo’s Polyphonic, they ask whether portraits, as a form of visual communication, have the ability to teach audiences anything about the people photographed. “I have this relationship with the idea of typology, its possibilities and its limits. It’s like a long term investigation into the vocabulary we assign to people based on their visual,” shrugs Hugo.

Direct, or, as some detractors describe it, critical and cruel, Hugo likes to think of his style as acknowledging the people he is photographing. “I don’t take pictures, they’re given to me,” he asserts gently. With the exception of The Journey (2014), where he photographed sleeping passengers aboard a 16-hour flight, Hugo positions his process as collaborative. “My agenda or function is not that of a journalist documenting with the intention to inform. The work is closer to questions.” 

Existing without time frames, place or theme, Polyphonic resists a linear reading. A portrait of President Cyril Ramaphosa sits next to one of a homeless man on Skid Row. The Honourable Justice Moatlhodi Marumo almost shares a wall with forty-five sleeping strangers. “Apart from the two series, I haven’t grouped it according to anything because I want the gaze that I have to feel democratic,” explains Hugo.

Hung at the same eye line (with the exception of the show’s grids) the portraits are fairly  straightforward, the people are photographed against a relatively simple background. Almost as if the subjects are live people in the gallery, it’s easy to make eye contact with the portraits. Resurfacing the show’s function to challenge perception, Hugo offers a reminder, “You’re looking but you’re being looked at. It’s sobering.”

So even though there’s an urge to group the portraits, in search of a singular message, in recognising each voice, represented by each subject’s face, the exhibition is an invitation to encounter each photograph independently. It’s also why the show is titled Polyphonic

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Ayanda Mabulu, The Healers, [date], oil and mixed media on canvas, 00 × 00cm