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Victoria & Albert Museum Presents Figures and Fictions: South African Photography
Springfontein, 2006. © Graeme Williams.

LONDON.- The first UK exhibition of contemporary South African photography from the last ten years is shown at the V&A from April 12 through July 17, 2011. Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography features over 150 works by some of the most exciting and inventive photographers living and working in South Africa today.

The exhibition presents the vibrant and sophisticated photographic culture that has emerged in post-apartheid South Africa. The works on display respond to the country’s powerful rethinking of issues of identity across race, gender, class and politics. The photographs depict people within their individual, family and community lives, practicing religious customs, observing social rituals, wearing street fashion or existing on the fringes of society. All the photographers question what it is to be human at this time in South Africa.

The 17 photographers in the exhibition range from established practitioners David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng, mid-career stars Pieter Hugo and Zwelethu Mthethwa to a new generation, fresh to the international stage, including Zanele Muholi and Hassan and Husain Essop. Each photographer is represented by one or more series that imaginatively question the conventions of portraiture, ethnographic studies or documentary photography.

Co-curator Martin Barnes said: “This exhibition shows the range and variety of politically-engaged fine art photography arising from a captivating period in South Africa’s history. These photographers are at the forefront of photography emerging anywhere in the world today and we are delighted to gather them all together for this first major exhibition showcase of the contemporary South African scene.”

All aspects of life including sex, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, occupation and class were regulated by law until the end of Apartheid rule in South Africa in 1994. For nearly 50 years the separation of races was enforced, with people categorised into ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘coloured’. As the first wave of post-apartheid euphoria has begun to fade, the country’s photographers are responding to the challenges of establishing a pure democracy in South Africa’s fascinating and fraught political context. Many of the works represent subjects who compose themselves for the camera, asserting new-found dignity and distinction.

Some works in the exhibition reference the types of anthropological study that was historically used to classify people into fixed racial and ethnic groups after photography arrived in South Africa in 1840. In the struggle against Apartheid, photography was used by activists as a documentary medium and contemporary South African photographers self-consciously engage with this history by documenting South African life but also inviting the viewer to read their own stories into the works.

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