The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
From the outset, the Goodman Gallery’s On Common Ground seemed like an exhibition that you should be interested in. The joint photographic exhibition, which featured the work of internationally renowned photographers David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane, presented itself as an important showcase of South African images, taken in varying settings, across various decades. In short, it was a show that would ideally help you view the history of apartheid South Africa and all of its complexities through a retrospective lens. But, as much as the past can provide a clearer view of what the future holds, Magubane and Goldblatt’s photographs remain striking examples of the contemporary injustices that exist in the country.
On Common Ground is a vast exhibition in terms of both the amount of work that’s been curated into a single show, and the many stories and versions of history that are being portrayed in these works. The exhibition is curated by Paul Weinberg, another prominent South African photographer who was active during apartheid South Africa. Weinberg knew Magubane and Goldblatt well and it shows in the exhibition through the works he chose to include as well as the key pieces of text he borrowed from various interviews and artist statements over the years.
The exhibition title takes its name from the similarities at work in both photographers’ images. To draw just a few thematic lines between Goldblatt and Magubane’s work would already see you delving deep into Johannesburg’s mines, traversing the busy streets of the city, navigating South Africa’s many informal settlements, and documenting various protests and moments of unrest.
Certain images seem familiar, such as Goldblatt’s image of the cup final at Orlando Stadium where a car rolls by an energetic crowd, a waving hand sticking out from the passenger side as a police dog bares its teeth. Perhaps, like me, you’d never seen the image before, but you’d come across Magubane’s image of the notorious green car rolling through the streets of Soweto, a policeman’s arm sticking out of the driver’s side and brandishing a gun.
Both photographers became completely immersed in the realities of the apartheid regime – Magubane through his work as a journalist, but also through a desire to document resistance, struggle and injustice, and Goldblatt through a profound interest in what pathologies gave rise to such a regime.
But there are differences, too. Magubane’s work may be at home in gallery spaces, but he was always a photojournalist through and through. Many of his images – particularly his documentation of uprisings and protest action – take place on the front lines. As Weinberg puts it: ‘Peter comes from the “if you’re not close enough, you’re not good enough” school.’ Magubane often referred to his camera as his weapon during the struggle. He rarely asked subjects for their names and, back then, he never asked for permission. His primary concern was to document what was happening in front of him, in the truest way possible.
Goldblatt’s work was always a little more withdrawn and, often, was carried out from the margins. As the late photographer said of his own work: ‘I was very interested in the events that were taking place in the country as a citizen but, as a photographer, I’m not particularly interested, and I wasn’t then, in photographing the moment that something happens. I’m interested in the conditions that give rise to events.’ This approach resulted in some of Goldblatt’s more powerful work, such as his photographs highlighting racial tensions among Afrikaners and black South Africans. ‘There was this strong sense of earth, a kind of spiritual generosity and, at the same time, a fundamental racist attitude,’ reads a quote by Goldblatt beneath a series of jarring images featuring white Afrikaners with their black employees.
And if Goldblatt’s work provides an archive of small moments that contributed to larger events in the country, then Magubane’s lens captured those events as they happened. Not only that, but Magubane’s images seem to go beyond the very immediate context in which they were taken. Captions are crucial to his works in this regard, as they often continue the story he’s told through photography. An image of a woman sitting in the back of a van with an armed soldier becomes somewhat less definitive when you discover that she’s pregnant and receiving police assistance during a riot. Then there is the image of a young man using a dustbin lid as a shield in one hand and gripping a rock in the other. As everyone around him moves away, he is headed straight towards whatever commotion or opposition is outside of the frame. It’s an image that tells a triumphant story, and then a dreadful one as you read the caption and discover that he was murdered shortly after the image was taken.
‘In my profession, if you don’t forgive, you would not be able to portray your subject properly,’ reads a poignant quote beneath two of Magubane’s quieter images. ‘Because you would be walking around with hatred.’
Then there are the other differences between the two photographers. For Goldblatt, a white photographer in South Africa, access was never an issue. Quotes beneath some of his works detail how he would often travel to Soweto with poet and novelist Sipho Sepamla and ask to photograph people in their homes. Later, he’d work with a local gang member to gain further access and build up what would become an expansive archive of portraits in the area.
For Magubane, a black photographer in South Africa, access was a constant issue. Magubane hailed from Soweto and would travel into the city to work. He was constantly harassed by police, had his nose broken, and was sentenced to 586 days in solitary confinement after photographing protesters outside a prison where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other political prisoners appeared. ‘For the police, assaulting the black press was a way of intimidating them, of trying to make them stop telling the truth,’ reads another quote by Magubane.
Similarly, while neither photographer actively sought a career as an artist, according to Weinberg, Goldblatt’s work accrued countless awards, and was exhibited across the globe, while Magubane’s work circulated mostly among educational institutions.
‘On Common Ground also marks one of a small handful of exhibitions for Magubane in a gallery setting,’ states Goodman’s Director, Liza Essers, in the exhibition statement. ‘Through this exhibition, we hope to address the historical oversight that Magubane has, in his lifetime, received such limited visibility in a contemporary art context.’
Ultimately, this reads like something of a guilty afterthought. ‘Historical oversight’ is addressed, yes, but what does it achieve? If anything, the works on display in On Common Ground, as well as the interview and biography excerpts tenderly sourced by Weinberg, show us that inequality persists and that documentation and visibility are crucial, but that they are not everything. Magubane and Goldblatt were very much contemporaries, and their careers intersected at many points over the years, but due to structural inequalities, the two were rarely on equal footing.
Here’s a quote by Magubane that possibly sums it up better: ‘I was being recognised for my skill as a photographer. The first time was in 1958, when I was still on Drum and Tom Hopkinson helped me choose an entry for the South African best pictures of the year. I got two prizes, first and third prizes. Then in 1963, I was the first black man to have an exhibit in South Africa, at an art gallery in Johannesburg, and the next year I went to London and Germany to exhibit my pictures. These shows were a success and then I went to New York where Look magazine gave to Nat Nakasa (then in exile) and me an assignment to shoot a story on the South. I was never able to do it; my friend committed suicide.’