Young bloods: Images of paradise lost

07 June 2016 - 10:21 By The Times

Pretty isn't an adjective that's been associated with Pieter Hugo's photography. Unnerving, shocking, even exploitative are words often used to describe it.His new exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town does evoke these responses, but the pitures are also pretty.Think large portraits of children in natural settings - some verging on kitsch. A young girl's blonde locks are sun-kissed and fields of flowers form the backdrop for other images.These could be adverts for shampoo, vitamins or toilet paper - any artificial product that advertisers want us to associate with purity.Hugo overstates his subject's childlike innocence, but he undermines it, too - mostly through the garments they wear. Some children are in dirty rags, others wear adult evening wear . So, despite the inviting natural surroundings, something unnatural is afoot.Our only clue to what this might be is in the title of the exhibition. Titled1994, the series encompasses images of children taken in Rwanda and South Africa after that year. These are the so-called ''born-frees".Their supposed ''freedom" is metaphorically represented via a nature motif - for it's in this setting that children are able to do what children are supposed to do; run around and play, roll in the earth, eat it even.None of his subjects are captured doing this. This is because Hugo has set them in front of a camera to perform for him and an imagined audience.The act of documenting their ''lives" is skewed by Hugo's motives. He intends to hold the viewer in a metaphorical space. The images are not about the subjects, but about us.The children are removed from contexts that could convey whether they're living ''good" or ''free" lives and so we're left to ponder their circumstances .Their poses are the only form of communication permitted. It's as if Hugo has set a challenge: Can the children reveal the ''truth" without the props? More importantly: What truths would we have them speak?Ultimately, Hugo asks whether innocence can be retrieved when the act of retrieval cancels the notion. - Mary Corrigall1994 is at Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, until July 16...

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