· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa
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Afrikaners (David Goldblatt)
| Many of my guests are interested in art, but
few arrive with the cell phone number of one of South Africas most famous
photographers, David Goldblatt... could I arrange a
of course David responded
kindly to my call, perhaps we could meet at my new exhibition,
Some Afrikaners Revisited".
There have been many aspects to Davids work, but he has had a life-long
fascination with Afrikaners, the descendants of European settlers in South
Africa. Rather like Peekay in the Power of One, he was
brutally bullied, from the youngest age, by Afrikaner children. In the 1930s
many Afrikaners supported fascism, and, after blacks, Jews were most
denigrated. The year he graduated from school, in 1948, the National Party came
to power, bent upon entrenching Afrikaner privilege through the draconian,
racist system of Apartheid. As the years passed, and the regime
became ever more intolerant, violent and demeaning of black people, Afrikaner
support for the National Party only grew. It was a bleak outlook for any
He thought of leaving for Israel, unable to imagine bringing up children is
such a brutal state. And yet, something held him in South Africa, a fascination
about Afrikaners: in spite of myself, [I began to feel] that I liked many
. there was a warm straightforwardness and an earthiness in many
of these people. He could not reconcile his contradictory feelings of
liking, revulsion and fear that Afrikaners aroused in him. David became intent
upon trying to understand those who had bullied him and now oppressed the black
majority of the country.
To get closer to Afrikaners, and the South Africa they were creating, he became
an itinerant portrait photographer: an observer, probing everyday life, from
rural districts to busy street corners. The superb photographs he captured,
packed with symbolism and metaphor, contrasts and irony, have become a
celebrated record of South African social history.
Touring the exhibition with David was a rare privilege. Behind every photograph
was a story and layers of representation. Look at this boy and girl he
said, showing a young Afrikaner boy with an older black girl, the boy is
touching the girl and they are smiling together;Afrikaner farm boys were
nurtured in the arms of a black wet-nurse and raised by nannies, then as they
grew-up they roamed freely, and a black girl would be told to keep them from
harm there was obviously a deep bond created; but at fourteen, the boy had to
shun those who had cared for him and become distant and superior.. no wonder so
many fantasized about black women and had illegal, clandestine relationships
across the colour bar.
Look at the expressions of these government leaders' he said pointing at
another huge picture '
the tight lips, set jaws, hard lines, serious eyes:
the determination of a minority government, bent on baasskap (white
power) that avowed Afrikaners are not the work of men but of God.
We looked carefully at the men in suits and the gloved and powdered
madams of the National Party, the men on horses, echoing the days of
frontier conquest, and the expressions of these Apartheid stalwarts and their
children, which seem
to share a look of suspicion - of the
camera and of the world in general.
David found metaphors in buildings and landscapes, kitchen furniture and crowd
scenes. His prolific work has yielded a unique sense of the texture of
daily life in South Africa. He always worked in black and white, avoiding
colour and its tendency towards prettiness.
Yet his work is not without compassion far from it. Somehow his pictures
give you a sense that Afrikaners were victims too. Their militarism and
superiority had left them dependent upon the very black people they reviled.
Davids pictures show the streets and fields filled with black faces, and
the ruling minority seems isolated, able to dominate only through continued
exploitation and the harsh use of power, to which it clinged, and the ideology
their leaders espoused. Yet in the towering Reformed churches, the suits and
formality of Afrikaners there was also a dignity and honest conviction that was
expressed in the straightforwardness David had sensed and the earthiness,
reflecting their love of the land, of Africa. It was perhaps this dignity that
finally won out and made the Afrikaners unique a brutal minority that
voluntarily gave up power.
Since the fall of apartheid David has embraced colour photography, perhaps
reflecting the promise of the new dispensation.However, his eye is still acute
and his work brings into sharp focus the emerging aspects of South Africa:
memorials, especially to AIDS victims, and the growing divide between rich and
poor. After more than fifty years of work, he remains a probing social critic
and continues to be honoured, including the prestigious 2006 Hasselblad
Foundation International Award in Photography. For more on Davids life
and there is an excellent review of his work
or google him.
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