Artists Space

Body and the Archive

January 18 – February 22, 2003

Kav Hassan, Senzeni Marasela, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Hentie van der Merwe

This group show references an essay by Allan Sekula of the same name as its framework for addressing the photographic archive in the context of South Africa. The artists represented in Body and the Archive are engaged with either literal appropriation of archival material or a kind of metaphoric negotiation of the classification of subjects that the archive maintains. The artists produce various brands of photographic portraiture and anti portraiture in an effort to challenge and defeat the archive. They often explore and locate new ways to reconstruct the subject by reinventing or negating the colonial archive by means of subversion and refusal.

In his essay "The Body and the Archive," Sekula examines the advent of photography in 19th century France as it relates to institutional categories of difference. His overarching definition of the archive is rooted in a turn-of-the-century culture in which denotations of class and classification became a basis for photographic meaning. Sekula's inquiry pays particular attention to the ways in which the operations of the archive served to create typologies that became devices of regulatory control. With the apparatus of the camera, categories from criminology to ethnography to bourgeois subjectivity were established that facilitated the cataloguing and surveying of bodies in ways that fueled ideological investments in colonialism and nation-building. In contemporary terms, Sekula argues that the device of the archive within apartheid South Africa became "the last physiognomical system of domination."

This exhibition examines various ways in which the body is represented archivally in post­apartheid photography of South Africa through operations of archival appropriation and bodily obscuration.

Kay Hassan's project entitled Non-European Libraries combines found passport Polaroid negatives and Non-European library forms. The partial fragmented portraits represent indistinct traces of the subject, only available in negative form, and are thereby unintelligible. Reverberating South Africa's passbook legacy, Hassan's series reflects upon identities collected, processed, traced, and inspected.

Hentie van der Merwe's photographed uniforms of headless mannequins from the Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, represents his latest homage to masculine identity and the politics of whiteness, through the depiction of late 19th to 20th century soldiers' gear and garb. Dramatically lit, cropped and blurred, the phantom subjects are anonymously memorialized. The costumes worn in the Anglo-Boer South African War, World Wars and Angolan war rehearse South Africa's military history and elucidate what South African critic Rory Bester has suggested as, "the military uniform as an archive of memory." Continuing his earlier engagements with the photographic archive, in which he appropriated anthropometric images in a grid of South African confederate soldiers, van der Merwe's work has shifted from the appropriation of a material archive to the abstraction of the archive's role in the construction of national identity. Van der Merwe's Untitled black and white portraits are re-photographed family pictures signaling out details of General Jan Smuts, the architect of apartheid, with van der Merwe's grandfather. Mimicking the kind of frontal portrait format of institutional photography, van der Merwe reflects on the intersection of personal and political history.

Senzeni Marasela, known for her appropriation of the media archive through her co-option of photojoumalistic imagery, is represented in the show by a black and white photographic triptych entitled Our Mother. Ambivalent in its representation of the body, the work also reflects traditional belief that photography captures both soul and image. The photographs illustrate her recent tum from a manipulation of historical material toward an abstraction of the body. Providing a mere specter of her subject, she intimates the figure merely by capturing a shadow cast on the ground. Marasela also debuts four new black and white photographs archiving sites of internment. In a highly formal fashion, Marasela aesthetically documents Castle of Good Hope, a 17th century fort, national monument, headquarters of the South African Army in the Western Cape and Military Museum. Here space becomes proxy for the body.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, renowned for his ongoing series of portraits of South African urban migrants in their domestic spaces, is represented in this exhibition by new work marking an erasure of the figure. Space now functions as surrogate for his subject. The in situ signage and decor - symbolic of the economics and cultural politics of the informal settlements of South Africa - provide a setting wherein the body remains legible even in its absence. Interested in reversing the conventional terms of photographing black subjects, particularly in the context of South Africa, through the staging of highly colorful and aestheticized, self­conscious, staged portraits, Mthethwa attempts to negate the ethnographic operations of the photograph. The work reinvents the terms of photographic portraiture within South Africa by reversing colonial models of representation.