Presenting photography as a vehicle to go against the grain
with Ruth Motau + Lindokuhle Sobekwa
Historically a tool associated with photojournalism during periods of heightened resistance, the marginalised person’s relationship with the camera is often laced with the potential to be objectified. A group exhibition addressing the things and ways we remember Against the Grain: Photography from South Africa and the United States traces the genesis of practices that informed artists developing practices that, in as much as they are reflective, conscious and delicate, also display the photographer’s agency. After attending a talk between Lindokuhle Sobekwa and Ruth Seopedi Motau, moderated by Alexandra Dodd, FNB Art Joburg contemplates sociopolitical photography outside the confines of journalism.
During times of turmoil, the moments where marginalised people have the potential to be held, celebrated and seen, for their holistic humanity, are often neglected, censored or erased in documentary practices. Addressing these notions, Against the Grain: Photography from South Africa and the United States challenges the idea that photography is an objective, all seeing and capturing, neutral means of remembering. To do this, Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Ruth Motau and Lindokuhle Sobekwa’s works display a tangible sense of immersion, proximity and intimacy in a way that makes their framing feel less extractive than photography is often perceived to be.
Soaked in materialism, the medium of photography invites absent presences, that were there when the images were made, into the present. Visual evidence of contemporary and long gone pasts, Against the Grain at Goodman Gallery employs practices ingrained in photography as tools to historically contemplate the now.
Expansive, one of the first things that Against the Grain does is to subtly trace the lines and connect the dots of kinship and allegiance within the photographic terrain in spite of political, geographical and temporal barriers. Acknowledging this link, Lindokuhle Sobekwa recalls his first encounter with Ernest Cole’s work at the age of 17. “House of Bondage became a great reference in terms of what I was pursuing in my language as a photographer.” Describing his language as the grammar to open conversations that result in solutions, Sobekwa’s works reflect public discourse as it plays out in private spaces. In Death of George Floyd, taken a continent away from the scene where George Floyd died at the hands of police brutality, we see the materialisation of political globalisation.
Echoing this sentiment of their practices being connected, Ruth Seopedi Motau, who was one of David Goldblatt’s students at the Market Photo Workshop, refers to Goldblatt’s In Boksburg body of work. “When I began to understand what it was that I wanted to do as a photographer, I focused on telling stories that the media couldn’t sell and looking at the In Boksburg series really spoke to me,” explains Motau.
An unequivocal foregrounding of Black women and girls, at a time when the natural response to documentary was patriarchal hard news, a current reading of Motau’s photography makes them feel contemporary and recent. It’s in the wedding portrait of Polly Motene and Robert Poswayo. It’s the topless woman reclining on her bed, surrounded by friends after a long day’s work. It’s even in her shebeen series where between sips, a couple embraces each other for a kiss. Made from a tone that Motau could only take because she is a woman from these communities. Elaborating, Motau says, “All the images that I’ve put in the show are a part of me and my reality. When it’s pensioners in a queue: I took my parents to the paypoint. Photographing women in the hostel is a part of me because my mother used to tell me stories of being there long before I arrived with a camera. All these pictures say a lot about my background, where I come from.”
An aspect of his practice that he charges to his foundation, Sobekwa recalls how his first assignment was to photograph home. “It was to sharpen our sensitivities for when we go out there to photograph realities that we do not own. That has been the greatest lesson but just because I have that sensitivity it does not mean there are no limits: I cannot just be pointing cameras and remedying it with empathy. ”
Also steering away from the news breaking moments, Against the Grain presents Goldblatt’s interest in long term documentation as a means to comment on the absurdity of the power structures at play. We see this when Sobekwa isolates Goldblatt’s Baby with child-minders and dogs in the Alexandra Street Park, Hillbrow, 1972. The son of a domestic worker, the work reminds Sobekwa of how he longed to have the time his mother spent minding other people’s children.
Like Motaue, who worked with the predominantly male Bang Bang Club, Ming Smith was the first woman to join the Kamoinge Workshop. Through her document of everyday life during the Civil Rights Era in the United States, Ming Smith’s contribution enters the conversation with an account that mirrors that of Black South Africa. Referring to her practice as “celebrating the struggle, the survival and to find grace in it”, like the aforementioned photographers, Smith’s work existed to document “Black life from a Black perspective”.
In addition to identifying Goldblatt and Cole as Motau, Smith and Sobekwa’s predecessors, Against the Grain platforms Cole and Goldblatt’s link. Only ten years apart in age, Ernest Cole and David Goldblatt’s photographic practices existed parallel to each other. Living and working in Johannesburg, both artists made distinctive portraits of a Johannesburg soaked in apartheid. Different sides of the same coin, separated by race, Cole and Goldblatt’s practices contributed to the canon in ways that spoke to each other. Touching on their unspoken relationship, Goldblatt spoke to South African History Online. During the conversation, Goldblatt said, “Ernest Cole was unquestionably an intimate of black life. He knew its richness, and he knew its humiliation and hardship under apartheid. And he showed these qualities most eloquently in his photographs.”
Highlighting the domestic, sartorial and relational affect of the political, Against the Grain stands to prove how life goes on.