Juxtaposition of photos will get people talking
Exhibit delves into perception and fear mongering, which is now made worse by social media
Reatile Moalusi sits in a bookshop on Commissioner Street in central Johannesburg. It is a typical summer’s day, which started under the cover of clouds and is dominated by the sun in the afternoon.
The streets are busy but it’s quiet inside Bridge Books. Moalusi sits at a table between book shelves and a coffee station. The small selection is filled with mostly SA books by JM Coetzee, Antjie Krog and Andre Brink, and about Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo.
He discusses race relations: the hopes and fears, the black and white, the contrast that is so often the story of SA. His mind and his lens have been locked on the matter for quite some time, and it is also the focus of his latest collaboration with photojournalist Jacques Nelles.
The first instalment of We Are cool: Consolidating Black Aspirations and White Fear exhibited at the North West University during the week of Aardklop in early October.
Moalusi’s work, often conceptual, mostly examines self-representation of black individuals. Nelles’s work, more documentary, studies the fears of many white South Africans, often armed and locked behind gates and bars. Put together, the photographers’ work is a striking juxtaposition of a fractured society. Pale skins against dark, fears against aspirations.
Nelles is late. He photographed a fire in Centurion and covered a press conference by Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum, which used farm attack victims to try to get the attention of international news outlets to highlight attacks on farmers.
At one such gathering, a young white girl is photographed holding a poster that bears an image of the statue of Paul Kruger. She is surrounded by white people who have gathered on Church Square in Pretoria to protect the statue in the image. It has been defaced with green paint. Barefoot and wearing a pink sweater, she looks directly at the camera with a cold stare.
This image is juxtaposed with Moalusi’s of young black boys playing. They appear almost as ghosts in the image — a double exposure on film — as they kick the ball around in the sand. They are playing "two-pal" or "one-pal" — a version of football in which the goals are narrow, only about a metre wide, and there is no keeper.
These young boys, Moalusi explains, are playing as they should be, whereas the young girl spends her day protecting the statue of a leader who died 100 years before her birth.
In another picture by Moalusi, titled Initiation of Batswana, a group of young men are seen standing around a small truck. They carry knobkerries but they are not on their way to inflict harm — they have been dropped off after concluding their initiation. “They have just returned from the mountain,” explains Moalusi, “this is them literally walking into manhood.”
This photo is set against one by Nelles of a middle-aged man in his kitchen. While he is leaning against a wall, his posture almost indicates that he is hiding — cowering behind the wall, behind the firearm in his hand, behind the bars on his kitchen window. Firearms and other security measures are common features in Nelles’s pictures.
Nelles explains that farm attacks do occur regularly. During 2017/2018, SA recorded its highest murder rate to date. Police minister Bheki Cele described the more than 20,000 murders as being “close to a war zone”.
However, through his photographs Nelles notes that misinformation and fear mongering have exacerbated the situation. Posts of violent crimes, often filled with horrific images from unrelated attacks, and worsened by racist rhetoric, regularly circulate on social media. Conspiracies of mass murder, ethnic cleansing or alleged plots by public figures against minority groups is partly what Facebook and Africa Check will be targeting in their new drive to rid South Africans’ timelines of fake news.
“Imagine that perception,” says Nelles, “people are living with that perception.”
For Moalusi and Nelles the juxtaposition of their works is not to imply that the young girl is protesting because the black boys are playing football, or that the armed man in his kitchen is waiting for that specific group of initiates to attack his house with knobkerries.
Instead, they hope these images, hanging next to one another, initiate a conversation. When people listen to each other’s stories and understand the context of these images, they might come just a little bit closer to one another. “Then we are actually reconciling black aspirations and white fear,” said Moalusi.
During the first instalment of We Are Cool, inspired by the book by American author and activist Bell Hooks with the same name, the photographers say they received surprisingly positive feedback. This included an Afrikaans woman who recently lost her husband in a farm attack.
They hope to exhibit the close to 20 images in a variety of spaces, with their immediate focus on Jeppestown in Johannesburg.
They believe these interactions could help break down the stereotypical perceptions South Africans have of one another, especially for younger generations, who might learn indifference or racism from loved ones before fully understanding the slogans, slurs and emotions often thrown around.