A Curator's Fingers: Photographers, Subjects, and The Third Thing

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Seminar Date
March 2, 2011
... When I returned to Evanston from South Africa, I had the negatives professionally cleaned and printed in 5" by 7" format. The enlarged prints permitted one to make out a good deal of additional detail. The color prints allowed one to note that the photographs were taken in different seasons. Some were taken at least as far away as Blantyre, Malawi, but some were taken "as near" as the forecourt of Angelo Hostel, within a few meters of Room 49. One is taken of a figure in a bunk—it could have been in Room 49. Some appear to have been taken in the grounds surrounding Angelo Hostel at a time when the grounds were well kept. Beer bottles appear in many of the images. An observer with better eyes than mine was able to read a headline—“Attorney [Rodney] Bekwa struck off the rolls”--on a crumpled yet reasonably fresh daily newspaper, The Sowetan. This offered an opportunity to date more closely the moment of at least several of the images. A few pictures show business signage in the background, and I was able to establish some more information about these sites by phoning the numbers on the signs, which established premises in Boksburg. There is a Ford vehicle with a 1985/86 registration; a table aside a leatherette sofa offers up a jar of Vaseline and a cassette tape recorder; another picture includes a child‟s toy from Fisher-Price. And some of the photographs reflect scenes recognizable within the E.R.P.M. property and within and just outside the gates of Angelo Hostel. In early 1992—a few months before I found the Angelo negatives--Santu Mofokeng was visiting Northwestern University. He spoke of his professional photographic practice in Soweto having two orbits. On the one hand, there was an unending demand outside South Africa for his photographs of violence, conflict, desolation, and want, but neither Sowetans nor the wider South African public were interested in such photography, recognizing the glut of these images and of the settings, events, and experiences recorded. On the other hand, Sowetans valued his family portraits and, as subjects, insisted that these conform to the subjects‟ idea of what a “proper” and “natural” representation of a family grouping was, seeking a century-old mode of domestic and family portraiture. Such pictures would hardly make sense to those outside South Africa. Santu‟s reflections echoed the testing poetics and politics of the Depression era documentarians in the United States, and of their Depression era subjects and audiences as well. Santu did not use the expression commodification but he was speaking about the mining of certain types of images by those outside the community. . .mining them for their own, rather than the subjects‟, uses. Santu was clear that many in the community had no interest in these representations of themselves as struggling victims. During the visit to Northwestern, Santu himself presented a series of "found" portrait images from South Africa in a show that I helped hang at the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities in Evanston. 14 These found portrait photographs were, in his exhibit, paired with his own photographs of Soweto. For members of the Institute and visitors, the display invoked discussions of the contrasts between the naturalized and domestic portraiture in the found photographs of black South Africans and the then present and recent photographs of Soweto and Sowetans which made their markets in the images of poverty, struggle and violence. . .far from the images in Santu‟s found images. My own reception of Santu‟s remarks was informed by the reflections of other artists, directors, and filmmakers, visiting Chicago from Africa, who also spoke of a (typically “frustrating”) bifurcated global economy of African arts. Very dramatically, Kofi Agovi spoke of reading his poetry in Lake Forest, Illinois, to groups of less than a dozen, while having audiences in the thousands at home in Ghana. He, as well as others, spoke of having to offer their presentations within theoretical framings in America unnecessary and/or unwanted at home. Such discrepancies were constantly “on the table” during discussions through the years of active work of the Institute at Evanston.
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