Embedded in the picturesque, unassuming Bavarian town of Ulm, Germany, is a fascinating plot of land. It contains three unusual looking buildings: three houses
– one is traditional, covered in ivy, another black, mostly windowless, with a trendy interior and then a white cube, two stories high with a vast underground level. This is the home of the Walther Collection, and currently the exhibition, ‘Appropriated Landscapes’. Each year a new curator creates a show from the collection, and this one is part of a three-year project focusing on the holdings of African photography.
The show, curated by Corrine Diserens, explores the effects of colonization, war and ideology on physical and psychological landscapes of South Africa. Around 200 images are displayed by 14 artists including recent work from Jane Alexander and Guy Tillim as well as newly commissioned pieces from Ângela Ferreira, Christine Meisner, and Peter Friedl.
Each house has a different atmosphere. With its low ceilings and intimate rooms the Green House is perfectly suited to exhibit the small-scale work of two of South Africa’s most prominent photographers; David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng. At a time when ‘struggle’ documentary photography was playing a crucial role in exposing the horrors of apartheid in a most palpable manner, Goldblatt chose instead to look at the effects of this system in a different way. From the early 1960s he photographed the deep rooted effects of apartheid by veering towards the eventless, the ‘unnatural’ nature of the man-altered South African landscape. Santu Mofokeng’s work too engages with the concept of landscape as the mute witness to history. His photographs depict the previously undocumented, everyday life of the ‘forgotten society’ of black South Africans in the townships. Though trauma is manifested in this landscape, the key theme that emerges through Mofokeng’s images is survival.
In the Black House, Jo Ractliffe’s new body of work on Angola’s civil war is premiered. Ractliffe visited Angola at the end of the war and for two years traveled with South African and Angolan ex-soldiers through what Portuguese colonials referred to as “As Terras do Fim do Mundo” – the lands of the end of the world. The haunting images produced show a scarred landscape. Unease is purposefully implied through unusually inhabited images of unintelligible signage, mass graves, and vast spaces with solitary, strange objects.
In the main exhibition space – the architecturally striking White Box – are photographs and video installations. Most striking is the presentation of the work of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. The subject of their collaboration is Ponte City: a 54-storey cylindrical building situated in the centre of Johannesburg. This is the tallest residential tower block in Africa and a politically important building; abandoned by white residents, it is now a precarious home to thousands of squatters and so represents a place of constant struggle. The artists’ have displayed lightbox panels divided into three themes: doors, windows and TVs. Presented on large screens suspended from the ceiling, the 12-channel digital slide projection provides a multitude of perspectives on the contemporary skyline of the city of Johannesburg from the point of view of the residents, giving a new resonance to the work.
Guy Tillim disarms colonial inheritance, not merely recording collapsed histories but “a walk through an avenue of dreams”. His highly composed photographs show urban decay and disorder, leading one to question the aestheticisation of poverty by an outsider. The video work of Penny Siopis and Peter Freidl’s films work to analyse narrative tools in colonialized surroundings and the perilous public sphere. In contrast to much of the exhibition, Zanele Muholi and Sabelo Mlangeni’s photographs are ‘peopling’ the landscape with marginal groups. Muholi, working with victims of hate crime, undermines the ethnographic archive by exploring sexual indeterminacy and the scrambling of codes. In the Country Girls series Mlangeni visits cross-dressing communities in rural South Africa exploring masculine intimacy to a poignant effect.
The scars of memory and history on the land expand the definition of landscape. The images displayed together here as Appropriated Landscapes depict the trajectory – from production through reception to the legacy – of these scars which have shaped the land. The exhibition asks important questions about the relationship between history and memory, the role of the photographer, and the problems of moving on from a trauma embedded in the very landscape.
To view images of works in the Appropriated Landscapes exhibition click here and follow the links for specific artists within each building.
Contributed by: Hannah-Grace Fitzpatrick