CityLife Arts

Standard Bank gallery opens with a virtual visual experience for the first time since it closed last year

BY Edward Tsumele CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

It somehow felt weird that for the first time since last year we had to attend the first opening of the Standard Bank Gallery virtually, while we were at home.

We all know it has always felt great to attend an opening at the Standard Bank Gallery Johannesburg CBD  in person. What about the mixing with other guests, exchanging notes on the exhibition, and even catching up on the latest gossip in the art sector. That is the atmosphere we had become used to. But not anymore because of the arrival of the life threatening Covid-19, a global pandemic, forcing many events to find alternative ways of engaging with the audience and this is possible through the use of new technologies, brought about  by the advancement of new technologies.

It is for that reason that this week, we could not attend in person this important photographic representation of life in South Africa in general and that of Johannesburg in particular,  in recent years.

And indeed what a journey we undertook virtually, listening and watching the participating photographers address us as audiences, speaking about their photographic journeys, as well as about their works that are on display in the standard Bank virtual gallery. We also were entertained by musicians as part of the official opening proceedings. It almost fell like the gold recent old days before the arrival of this virus and the disease it causes among the human race.

Although a lot of us who attended the event on Thursday, 15, April, 2021, would have loved to attend in person, to be honest it was more out of a habit that has been ingrained in us for years than lack of experiencing the happenings at the opening. Yes, it was not a physically attended event, but it held its own nevertheless, a different experience was enjoyed by the guest. At least I personally felt that way.

And so let us get into the thick of things when it comes to the work on exhibit and the issues this exhibition is dealing with. The exhibition itself is a deeply touching experience that will leave you with a different understanding of the role of photography in people’s lives in general, and telling the Johannesburg’s  in particular as experienced and felt by these participating artists.

These works of art on exhibit and collectively titled Photographs in Our Mother Tongue have been curated quite ably by the Standard Bank Gallery manager and curator Dr. Same Mduli, selected from the Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection.

The emphasis in this body of work is to try and give those among us who have witnessed some of the issues that are part of the visual conversation in this exhibition to a level of familiarity where one identifies himself or herself in the context of the issues ventilated there.

“ We know how it feels to speak in our mother tongue. But does this feeling translate into sight? How do we look at the world – as black, brown, or white people? Do we see differently as public figures and private citizens? As urban hustlers and rural travelers? As he, she or they?

The Standard Bank Gallery’s first exhibition for 2021 offers a range of answers to these questions. Photographs in Our Mother Tongue includes images from the Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection produced by major South African artists working in the photographic medium between 2003 and 2017.

These years of transition in South African society were also a period during which photography became a more prominent feature of the country’s visual arts scene. The iconic images of the preceding decades were mostly associated with photographers working in an urgent documentary and journalistic context – recording life under apartheid and the early years of democracy. The works collected in Photographs in Our Mother Tongue are evidence of a shift towards a more reflective and experimental approach. This change notably overlapped with developments in photographic technology (from analogue to digital) and an altering media landscape (the increasing role of smartphones and social media in the circulation of imagery).

The title of the exhibition was inspired by the ability of photography as a medium to communicate strong and compelling messages. It invites viewers to reimagine photography and its power to capture themes and images that are quintessentially South African – as if these photographs are communicating to us in a language we understand, in our mother tongue,” says the curatorial statement about this exhibition.

In a number of the works exhibited in Photographs in Our Mother Tongue – by Mohau Modisakeng, Mary Sibande, Hasan and Husain Essop, Kathryn Smith and Candice Breitz – the artists use themselves as subjects,or recreate versions of themselves. These are not, however, simply self-portraits; the photographer-subject adopts a persona, plays a part, prompting the viewer to question our assumption that photographs capture “real life” moments.

Other images are partially or fully obscured portraits: in photographs by Berni Searle, Jane Alexander, Minette Vári, Pierre Croquet and Sabelo Mlangeni, the subjects are viewed from below or behind, masked, blurred, distorted and silhouetted. We can only guess at their identities, situations and stories. Contrastingly, in Nontsikelelo Veleko, Kudzanai Chiurai and Pieter Hugo’s work, the subject looks directly at the camera. These portraits show, by turns, confidence and insecurity – and perhaps a combination of both, when a brash exteriority hides an anxious interiority.

And what about landscapes? While these might lure us into a lyrical response to the southern African countryside, they also carry reminders of human activity. In photographs by David Goldblatt, Guy Tillim, Bob Cnoops, Natasha Christopher, Daniel Naude, Obie Oberholzer and Georgia Papageorge, people are absent but the artist gestures towards their presence: humans impose themselves on, but are also at the mercy of, nature. Mikhael Subtozky teases the viewer with his takes on the traditional “solitary figure in a landscape”.

“Standard Bank shares the Corporate Art Collection with the public so they can experience the different perspectives of life through photography”, says Dr Same Mdluli, Standard Bank Gallery Manager and Curator, adding that the reality is that the artists capture and portray the images in their own imagination while interpreting life differently through the lens.

Andrew Tshabangu’s lens finds its focal point in people on city streets. Jo Ractliffe, like Tshabangu, depicts downtown Johannesburg – but she looks up the architecture, combining different perspectives on the urban jungle. Bridget Baker’s triptych also collapses multiple views or scenes into one work. And Santu Mofokeng and Marcus Neustetter, playing with light and dark, render the familiar into the eerily unfamiliar.

“Standard Bank shares the Corporate Art Collection with the public so they can experience the different perspectives of life through photography”, says Dr Same Mdluli, Standard Bank Gallery Manager and Curator, adding that the reality is that the artists capture and portray the images in their own imagination while interpreting life differently through the lens.

All of these photographers challenge the viewer to “look” differently, to “see” more than first appears to us in the image. They may be in a studio or in the open; in a place we recognise or in a dreamscape. Photography, here, is shown to be both an archive of the world we know and a tool for reshaping it, revisioning it, into something new.

This exhibition is worth paying a virtual visit.

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