Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa

BY Glen Helfand, March 21, 2014

Athi-Patra Ruga, Performa Obscura, in collaboration with Mikhail Subotzky. Photo: Ruth Simbao, courtesy Athi-Patra Ruga and WHATIFTHEWORLD/GALLERY

It’s difficult to consider South Africa outside of its fraught political history of colonization and institutionalized segregation. These conditions rise to the surface of the country’s most visible cultural exports, from feature films, such as the recent Nelson Mandela biopic, to contemporary art. Public Intimacy, an abundant, sometimes overwhelming show, was organized collaboratively by curators at SFMOMA (Frank Smigiel, Dominic Willsdon) and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Betti-Sue Hertz), and the 200 works included represent a cultural immersion into intimate scenarios enacted in communal settings: streets, buses, nightclubs, residence hotels, housing blocs.

On view through June 29, the ambitious show wobbles a bit under the need to provide contextualizing information regarding the complex aspects of South Africa’s history.  Photography appears to be the most effective means of exploring culture through documentary or performance-based projects (the exhibition also includes a robust series of live events). The show affirms a rich South African history in documentary photography with works by the venerable David Goldblatt, who is represented by work ranging from street photography from the 1960s to more recent views of craggy landscapes. There are little-known vintage works by Magnum photographer Ian Berry, including photographs of 1950s drag balls in Cape Town and pictures of a 1960s nightclub, The Catacombs, populated by sailors, businessmen, and Dusty Springfield blondes—all the more interesting for the fact that the photographer Billy Monk was the club’s bouncer. Other hermetic, enclosed spaces used for public gatherings can be seen in Ernest Cole’s 1960s photographs of church services held on commuter trains, a phenomenon spurred by conditions of black laborers who, because of segregation, had to travel great distances to work and leveraged their daily trips to include worship. Such images reveal, with visual sophistication, moments of life lived within problematic conditions. 

Zanele Muholi, Nomonde Mbusi Berea, Johannesburg, 2007. Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town; ©Zanele Muholi

The same holds true for a powerful multi-screen projection piece, Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Windows, Ponte City, 2008-11, an almost anthropological investigation of a troubled multi-story housing development, a circular tower that has served as a beacon and landmark with shifting meanings, including urban idealism, decay, and attempted revitalization. Ponte City was noted for its vistas of Johannesburg as well as its sense of being a barometer of social and political health. Like the best of the work in this show, it reveals a culture that’s not easy to parse, yet bristles with humanity.