For a women to style herself both in traditional male clothing and then sedate, proper female attire in the same photo shoot plays on gender boundaries even today; I did a double-take on finding such portraits in an exhibition of South African photography from the 1970s. The selection of black-and-white photography currently up at the Walther Collection Project Space, “Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa,” features insightful works taken by Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley in the 1970s and 80s. Kitty’s studio portraits allowed his subjects to model themselves as they wanted to be seen, exposing their hopes and aspirations. Implicitly they offer insight into the complexity of this particular context: the 1970s South African city of Pietermaritzburg and lives of some of its “non-white” citizens. Under Apartheid, these middle and working class people were classified as African, Indian, or Coloured–a legal status that would be reflected in the ID booklets that everyone was required to carry. Kitty, politically active and opposed to Apartheid, earned his living partially from ID photos, even as his studio became a place for political discussion and the modeling of more complex images of self.
Kitty’s vernacular photography transcends the sometimes stilted atmosphere of the studio. Boys dance ecstatically in modern dress; a female stands like an unsmiling statue in traditional clothing. The popularity of photography studios at the time in South Africa recalls the initial emergence of photography in the West, with Nadar’s studio in Paris and the fad of carte-de-visite. There is an informality and vitality to the rapidly shot images that was impossible 100 years prior, but these images similarly circulated in the private domain. Here, images were also served specific social purposes, such as the family album or a token for a boyfriend working in a distant city. What is on view is a self-fashioning that is perhaps fictional but not coerced; rather it presents how subjects wanted to see themselves. At some level though, cut off as we are from the subjects and place, we can only wonder as to an individual’s motivations.
Why did the unknown young woman want to be photographed in both traditional and men’s clothing? In the image above, the women dresses in a skirted outfit featuring Zulu beadwork, according to what would have been customary in her tribe. In the image below, she wears pants and poses next to a floral arrangement. In both her bare feet contrast with European umbrella. Kitty’s studio had a minimal backdrop of curtains, and a few props that reappear from portrait to portrait, such as the umbrella or a telephone. Commercial European goods served as synechdotes for modernity to the sitters who chose to use them. These two photos, like the abandon of the dancing boys, suggest the playfulness that was found in Kitty’s studio.
A newfound appreciation for African studio photography and vernacular photography brings these prints into an art context for the first time. Their history is fascinating and reflects the racist system that they were created under: a local museum curator bought the negatives of Kitty’s studio after his death, and then threw away a wide selection because it portrayed Africans not wearing traditional, ethnographically acceptable ways of dress and ornamentation but rather as individuals freely embracing modernity in different ways. An intern saved them in a garage until they were bought by the current New York-based owner.
Seeing the works complicates our idea of the desirability of European modernity or what modernity looked like in South Africa: sitters appear not only equally comfortable in traditional garb and European dress, but consciously using them as signifiers. As Okwui Enwezor writes elsewhere about the work of Malian photographer Seydou Keïta: “the image is, above all, to be read as a pictorial sign of various representational intentions of the sitters rather than the objective, detached, autonomous practice of the photographer alone” (Events of Self: Portraiture and Social Identity, 2010, p. 33). This kind of freedom of self-fashioning would have been rare for the middle and working class patrons whose social lives were structured around the racist limitations of Apartheid. The contradictions inherent to these photographs, unlike those of “art photography,” are not shaped purely by an artist’s vision but are the result of a complex place and time, one that we have fascinating access to here. The collaboration of the photographer and the sitter gave private voice, and now documentary access to the viewer, of a changing South African identity which struggled with the movement away from colonialism, racism, and surveillance.
“Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa” is up at the Walther Collection Project Space at 526 W. 26th St, Suite 718 through September 3.