Art, in its varying forms, can be a useful tool to document the complex and tumultuous history of the country, offering a unique and considered glimpse into the past. Photography, arguably, is the most literal way to do this, and sometimes it is the most fitting.
Opening 28 July at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery is On Common Ground, a joint exhibition showing the works of renowned South African photographers, Peter Magubane and the late David Goldblatt.
The exhibition, which will feature both popular and lesser-known works by the photographers, is curated by fellow South African photographer Paul Weinberg who worked with both Magubane and Goldblatt over the years. And just how did an exhibition like this come about? After Magubane approached the Goodman about an exhibition, the idea of having a joint show with the works of both Goldblatt and Magubane emerged, and the gallery contacted Weinberg.
‘I concentrated on setting up a conversation between their projects,’ explains Weinberg ahead of the exhibition. ‘This allowed for a kind of filtering process. Both had worked in Soweto, and on the mines, for example. It was quite astonishing to discover that Peter had photographed Afrikaners, which was an incredible revelation to me … So, David and Peter’s respective work on Afrikaners sits side by side, setting up an extraordinary dialogue.’
Taking a look at each photographer’s body of work, you’ll find many parallels – some overt, and others more subtle. From Goldblatt’s collection of images, for example, there is a photograph of a car driving through a parade (Cup final, Orlando Stadium, Soweto. 1972). A hand sticks out of the car, waving to the people as it passes by. This finds something of a counterpart in a work by Magubane where a car moves down an empty road, an arm sticking out the driver’s side, not waving, but brandishing a gun.
Considering the two photographers’ approaches to the medium, the differences and similarities in their work become even more interesting. Magubane, a photojournalist, was always on the frontlines and working as closely as possible to the subject or focus of his images. Goldblatt’s approach to photography was slow and calculated, often carried out from a distance. What happens, then, is a portrait of a time in history through two very different lenses, both concerned with similar issues. While Goldblatt’s works largely document what he once described as ‘the conditions that give rise to events’, Magubane’s work documented the resultant events in all of their harsh and harrowing immediacy.
‘The two photographers have very different styles. Peter comes from the ‘if you’re not close enough, you’re not good enough’ school, whereas David stepped back from events to look at the underbelly of society with a quieter, more distanced point of view,’ explains Weinberg. ‘It is these different styles that makes for a fascinating meditation on how one approaches ‘seeing’ South Africa through a lens.’
While the works of Goldblatt have been exhibited in fine art settings the world over, Magubane’s works have mostly been exhibited in academic institutions. Goodman gallery owner and director Liza Essers notes in the exhibition blurb that, ‘On Common Ground also marks one of a small handful of exhibitions for Magubane in a gallery setting. Through this exhibition, we hope to address the historical oversight that Magubane has, in his lifetime, received such limited visibility in a contemporary art context.’
Weinberg also notes that despite documentary photography forming a part of the world of formalised fine art, neither photographer ever set out to create work that would exist in these settings, initially.
‘Neither of these photographers considered themselves artists, but the fine art galleries and museums of the world offer extraordinary exposure and gravitas. However you wish to see it, both are highly deserving of being collected in their twilight years after a life of dedication to telling stories and exploring the world around them. That collision between a photographer and the fine art world is unpredictable. But, with this exhibition, I see it as synergetic,’ says Weinberg.
On Common Ground opens at The Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg 28 July and runs until 18 August 2018.