JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 black and white photographic works (10 single images and 6 diptychs), framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, with paper captions pinned to the frame edge, made in 2017. The images range in size from 6×9 to 12×18 inches (or reverse, each panel), and the prints are available in editions of 15. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Few projects in contemporary photography have muddied the waters between fact and fiction as deliberately as 1972 by Rachel Monosov and Admire Kamudzengerere. A cursory glance through this small gallery show will inevitably lead to the conclusion that this is simply an extended documentary essay following the lives of an interracial couple living in Harare in 1972. We see photographic evidence of their marriage ceremony, the building of their house, and their seemingly happy lives as their children grow from babies to teenagers. Each picture is accompanied by a paper caption pinned to the frame, noting that the photograph was drawn from the National Archives Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs in Harare, Zimbabwe, with the images variously dated in August of 1972. And this is the first clue that something isn’t quite right.
The pictures show us the bride in her wedding gown, the actual ceremony, the clearing of land for their house, the picking of bricks, and then later, posed pictures with babies and a joyous day at the lake with their two teenage boys. But all of the pictures are dated 1972, and each is from a different day in the same month of August, so time isn’t behaving normally in this family album – more than a decade of real time has been collapsed into a single month.
Back in 1972, Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, and had just begun what would turn out to be a 7-year long war between the nationalists and the Rhodesian security forces. Interracial marriage was effectively impossible at that time, and there had been political efforts to make it illegal. So between the strict social constraints and the surrounding context of conflict at that time, the existence of these happy pictures would have been extremely unlikely.
What Monosov and Kamudzengerere have effectively done is created a visual time capsule in the present, buried it, and then pretended to unearth it as documentary evidence from 1972. Where this story bends back on itself is that the various scenes they have photographed “actually happened”. I have intentionally placed those words in quotes because after a few clarifying questions, it becomes almost impossible to separate the ideas of “performance” and “reality”. Monosov and Kamudzengerere are indeed a couple and they did throw a real wedding and invited various members of the local community to attend. There was a ceremony under a chuppah, a cake, a white dress, and the typical presentation of a dowry (at least one goat), all of which were actually photographed at that time. They did stand in a cleared garden, they did visit with construction workers building a house, and they did have a nice day at the lake with two kids (who apprently belonged to their friends). So the pictures document actual events that took place (all in a single month one August), that did reflect the actual lives of an interracial couple, but they aren’t the events that they purport to document, and the printed captions are therefore fabrications (truths drawn from Wikipedia but effectively falsehoods, at least in part, when applied to these particular images).
This conceptual end around makes each image in this show both something that it is and something that it isn’t, and this duality makes for some intriguing cognitive dissonace. Are the pictures “staged”? – well, yes and no, these events didn’t happen in 1972, but they did happen recently, so they were set up, but maybe they also could have happened back in 1972 and they were never photographed, or versions of them could have happened. Did they stand outside their first home? Well no, it wasn’t their house and it wasn’t 1972, but it might have been (it was the kind of house they would have had at that time); they did indeed stand outside that house and hold a baby, and they were/are a happy interracial couple, but the underlying reality wasn’t quite what the photograph seems to capture. So the performative love/family story becomes a kind of hall of mirrors, where we are never quite certain where the ultimate truth lies, and maybe it doesn’t matter. And this of course is the point.
In some forms of performative photography, the artist or models take on roles, which provide them some distance between their actual selves and the characters they are inhabiting. Here, that spread has been largely removed – aside from the intentional (and illusory) time warp, the artists and the “characters” they are playing are the same people. And as a result, photographic “documents” of their lives become puzzlingly, and satisfyingly, mixed-up.
While only some of the images in this show rise to the level of being interesting photographs, the entire backstory to this project is so intricately crafted that the series resonates with impressively brainy intelligence. Even after spending a meaningful amount of time trying to unpack its layers, the whole thing still feels elusive. What is the truth of a photograph? What it emprically seems to show? Or what is represents to someone who made it or sees it later? Monosov and Kamudzengerere’s mystifyingly smart project stands right at the heart of that conundrum, almost daring us to make sense of its impossible contradictions.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced from $2000 to $3000 for the single images, and from $4000 to $5000 for the diptychs, based on size. The entire set is available for $20000. Monosov/Kamudzengerere’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option form those collectors interested in following up.