Photographers are fighting their way out of the hole that selfies dug

04 April 2017 - 11:35 By Mary Corrigall
'The Past Continues to Reveal the Present' by Brendon Erasmus, who eschews any medium with a digital connection - preferring to make art statements on cardboard or disused items.
'The Past Continues to Reveal the Present' by Brendon Erasmus, who eschews any medium with a digital connection - preferring to make art statements on cardboard or disused items.
Image: Supplied

The death of painting has been announced and denounced time and again. Could the photographic medium be facing annihilation - at the hands of artists, that is?

Photography has probably never been as popular since cellphone cameras and social media allowed it to become a communication tool for everyone. Our society has become so dependent on documenting life that it's curiously become the digital filter through which we experience it. Perhaps it's not surprising that artists are rethinking how they use it.    

"You have to think hard now about taking a photograph that no one else can," observed Roger Ballen in an interview when Asylum of the Birds, his book of photography, was published. Ballen opted to map macabre fictional spaces as a way of navigating this dilemma.

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A younger generation are choosing to forgo photographic art altogether. Whereas in the early noughties Guy Tillim documented Joburg's inner-city urban decay via a photographic essay, a young artist such as Io Makandal not only embraces entropy, viewing it as nature's way of correcting humankind's domination, but her photographic documentation of it forms the basis for abstract drawings, paintings and installations - as seen in her exhibition, Entropy Into a Third Landscape, showing at Joburg's Kalashnikovv Gallery.

The main reason why Makandal wouldn't exhibit her photographic images, other than using them as the first step in a process, is that they would be banal - unfashionable even.    

Simon Gush's exhibition, The Island, showing at Stevenson Johannesburg, which presents a photographic essay documenting large dams in Lesotho, feels out of step with what artists are producing now - perhaps even one-dimensional. It's no wonder that it includes two filmic works.

Artists exhibiting in Joburg such as Banele Khoza, at Lizamore Gallery, and Brendon Erasmus (his first solo at No End Contemporary) employ painting, though their work deals with photography in the realm of social media.

Khoza and Erasmus are both concerned with the fake public faces of exaggerated happiness that the selfie culture has engendered. Painting, which is non-digital and allows for expressiveness, is the best way to counter it and express something beyond the image - Khoza scrawls words in his paintings. Erasmus can't bear ''viral culture" and eschews any medium with a digital connection - preferring to make art statements on cardboard or disused items.

The shift in contemporary practice to textiles, which has been canonised in the Iziko SA National Gallery show Women's Work: Crafting Stories, Subverting Narratives, reveals a generation of artists who have turned to craft traditions as a means of expression. They revel in the labour involved in art making, and generating objects that can be valued because of it.

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Photography in the realm of art is not exactly a ''labour free" practice. In producing works centred on documenting the lives of different communities, whether prisoners (Die Vier Hoeke series in the early noughties) or inhabitants of the Ponte building (in 2014), Mikhael Subotzky has had to embed himself in those spaces and evolve relationships with his subjects - but so much of the ''labour" pivoted on building relationships that were always going to be unequal. In these "woke" times of identity consciousness rooted in an awareness of systemic prejudice, it's hard to sustain a photographic practice in the same way as before.

This may be why Subotzky started to turn the lens on himself, beginning with Retinal Shift. In his solo exhibition at Joburg's Goodman Gallery, WYE, he's taken this a step further, producing a three-channel video work rooted in exploring white male privilege - not that he really puts himself on the slab. It's interesting to note that in interrogating his own identity he uses the medium of film, which allows for more fluidity and a multiplicity of layers.

OTHER EXHIBITIONS TO CATCH

MIA CHAPLIN

The rendition of drapery is an important conceptual tool and subject matter for 27-year-old Mia Chaplin, who works with oil on canvas and on paper. She says she is seduced by the powers of impasto yet succumbs to the traditional genres of still life, figure and flower studies in her work.

"This work has a narrative that falls in and out of focus," she says of her current exhibition, Under a Boiling River, on at Whatiftheworld's Johannesburg gallery from April 6-29.

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TABITA REZAIRE

''The internet is exploitative, exclusionary, classist, patriarchal, racist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, coercive and manipulative. We need to decolonise and heal our technologies. Healing is resistance," writes Tabita Rezaire about her upcoming exhibition.

Rezaire calls her artistic method ''digital healing activism", which digs into the histories, politics and memories of information and communication technologies, exposing the violence and erasure carried by our networks. On at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, from April 8 until May 27.

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SA TAXI FOUNDATION ART AWARD

The SA Taxi Foundation Art Award requires artists to create a piece of visual art and then interpret and transport the artwork onto a minibus taxi decal, demanding that artists work to a commercial design brief. In the process, the broader public is exposed to art via minibus taxis that carry the decal design on a range of routes across South Africa.

The winner of the competition receives R50,000 and each of the five finalists receives R10,000. The Top 30 semi-finalists' exhibition is displayed at the Lizamore & Associates Gallery, Johannesburg, from April 6 - 29. The six winning decal designs are then displayed on 10 minibus taxis each, which travel different areas of the country for six months.

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This article was originally published in The Times.

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