The show at the Ludwig Museum of South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s large, color photographs opens a window onto a side of Africa that few Western museum-goers are likely to have experienced, and it does so with an unflinching, documentary gaze that remains honest. His portraits emphasize the individual’s humanity. Through gaze, the viewer is connected to him or her, often people who they might be separated from by sociopolitical or economic factors.
Next to the portrait Ashleigh McLean, left, is Hugo himself, a young and successful white man in South Africa. His subjects are often not either of those things, and there is a tension there. More on that in this interview with the artist. Maybe that tension fed into this most recent portrait series, There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends, where he alters his own and his friends’ skin pigmentation, subtly playing with our perception of them through their skin tones.
The two portraits above, from the “Permanent Error” series, are called Al Hasan Abukari and Aissah Salifu, named after their subjects. In this way, Hugo doesn’t allow the subject to be de-personalized, while posing them in traditional, statuesque ways and with a direct gaze. The two men are among many people who search through an expansive dump of obsolete technology in Ghana for scraps of precious metal. Overall, the exhibition at the Ludwig offers a documentary-esque yet aesthetic experience, which on one could be critiqued as exoticising the other, but I think Hugo escapes that with the personal connection and dignity he treats his subject with, even if never negating the voyeurism of portraiture.
More on the artist’s website.