“More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa.”—J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace.
South Africa in Apartheid and After, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a photographic investigation of the troubled country by three photographers: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, and Billy Monk. All native South Africans, each brings a very different perspective on his homeland.
The exhibition opens with photographs from Goldblatt’s 1982 project In Boksburg, a group of portraits of day-to-day life in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb of Boksburg, near Johannesburg, shot between 1970 and 1980. Goldblatt’s photographs are riveting as a catalogue of the accouterments of suburban living and the globalization of its milquetoast aesthetic: tract housing, OCD lawn care, concrete fences. Pervading his images is the sense of willful escapism that the suburbs can impart and are even designed to do. Perhaps this interpretation comes with an awareness of the ignominies of apartheid, particularly the disgrace of its final convulsions before its repeal in 1990. Considering that In Boksburg was shot during one of the most shameful episodes in human history, the series reads like a study of the deliberate obliviousness of its subjects.1
Many of Goldblatt’s images convey this contradiction between a place and the aspirations played out there. Black people rarely appear in the photos, and there is little evidence of black life or culture at all, except for a few shots of people looking dour at community meetings organized to address increasingly dreadful race relations. How strange the white semifinalists of the “Miss Lovely Legs” competition look, with their feathered hair and peekaboo nipples, teetering on a platform in front of an audience composed mostly of children and modestly dressed blacks. Other photographs require the viewer’s knowledge of their historical context to the land for the fullest reading. In one image, a smiling woman appears to be leading a small group of equally glee-filled children in song or to be telling a story. These are the Voortrekkers, a Boy Scout–like group set up by Afrikaner nationalists who found the actual Scouts to be too diverse and so established a new group to exclude not only black South Africans but also English-speaking whites and Jews.
Just as our American suburbs represent an escape from the “evils” of city life, Boksburg comes across as a sort of blinkered retreat from the ugly surrounding reality of the imperial cultures’ making. Goldblatt suggests that the transplanted cultures have brought with them a strict refusal to be affected by or to acknowledge their surroundings. Their homes could be in any suburb of the developed Western world; their hobbies and entertainment are familiarly middlebrow; their disregard for the humanitarian outrages their lives are built on is palpable. (continue reading)