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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 Africa’s most famous photographers, David Goldblatt... could I arrange a David Goldblattmeeting… ‘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 David’s 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 open–minded person.

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 of them…. 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.David Goldblatt - farm boy and black girl

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 David Goldblatt - Horses 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. David’s 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 David’s life click this link, and there is an excellent review of his work here, or ‘google’ him.

 


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