Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted/unmatted (depending on size), and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. The images were made between 1972 and 1982. The prints were made from recently rediscovered negatives; no process, size, or edition information was provided on the checklist. The show also includes one vitrine with a selection of ephemera from Kitty’s Studio, 2 South African passbooks, 4 postcard images made by unidentified photographers, c1910, and 3 examples of beaded belts/shawls, c1975. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The local studio portrait photographer is an occupation that sadly seems doomed to eventual extinction or redefinition. Bridging the chronological gap between 19th century portrait painters and the worldwide ubiquity of low cost handheld cameras, these photographers offered the possibility of a well-made, reasonably priced photographic record (especially in less wealthy and developed regions around the globe) where no other option was readily available. Often set up in a makeshift location or city storefront, standard images were churned out day after day, documenting a never ending stream of life moments and personal landmarks, from births and weddings to formal arrangements of families, lovers, and coming-of-age men and women. And while a handful of obscure studio portraitists have risen above the mundane to reach memorably innovative aesthetic heights (Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, and to a lesser extent Mike Disfarmer, come to mind), the vast majority have remained largely anonymous, their functional pictures recording the passing of time with workmanlike efficiency.

If we are honest, S.J. “Kitty” Moodley’s studio portraits from 1970s and 1980s South Africa bear few hallmarks of artistic insight. His sitters largely stand centered in the frame, often atop bare linoleum and flanked by two static curtains in the background, the composition perhaps enlivened by a standard prop like a telephone, an umbrella, or a floral bouquet. Most pose with formal decorum, unsmiling and modest, as was the prevailing custom. Photographically, the pictures are spare and functional, generally without flourishes of style or staging.

But what makes the rediscovery of Moodley’s discarded cache of studio portraits exciting is their important time and place (apartheid-era South Africa) and the diversity of identities that were allowed to flourish under Moodley’s one roof in Pietermaritzburg. While the apartheid regime was intent on rigidly classifying citizens as African, Indian, or Coloured, once inside the safety of the portrait studio, Moodley’s subjects adopted a wide range of mix-and-match combinations and identities that overtly defied the governmental designations. So while the compositions may not be wholly original, seen together, the resulting photographs are a nuanced and surprisingly resonant social archive, showing us how South Africans struggled (at least in the privacy of their own portraits) to define themselves as individuals, in the face of a government that wanted to actively erase those personal definitions.

Moodley’s portraits present us with a wide spectrum of cultural realities. At one end, we find images of those in conservative traditional dress, covered head to toe in elaborate Zulu beadwork and woven textiles, adorned with furs and intricate sashes. At the other, young men and women put on their 1970s funky best, aiming for a Westernized version of cool, with sunglasses, peace-sign jewelry, bold patterns, berets, wide sideburns, and dangling cigarettes their symbols of youthful individuality. And in between lie the hybrids, transformations, and shape shifters – family groups with parents in modest suits and dresses and children in bare breasted beadwork, religious converts in crisp uniforms toting briefcases with biblical quotes, and brave individuals moving back and forth, in traditional dress in one image and modern sunglasses the next, or putting together old/new, male/female, in ever more complex iterations. While the risks being taken are subtle, they can be found in nearly every image, from the timid middle aged woman posing with the newfangled radio to the traditional healer holding her staff in front of a camera she didn’t enjoy much. That ordinary women would feel comfortable enough to have portraits taken in white facial masks and wearing jaunty lampshades as hats during such a period of crackdown is incontrovertible evidence that Moodley had created a uniquely special environment, successfully free and open in times of pervasive restriction.

What emerges from a longer and more thorough look at these portraits is a sense of progression, of a culture evolving to balance the modern with the traditional, and doing so inside a governmental system that wasn’t interested in these often tumultuous social harmonizations. And while there is joy and playfulness in many of these images (to be matched by equal doses of sober tradition in others), there is an overriding sense of something at stake going on in these pictures. They are more than just the routine historical documents of an ordinary community – there is consistent strength and defiance simmering in the shadows, sharpening the edge of the everyday into something with more bite.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. And given the nature of the vernacular material, there is basically no primary or secondary market for the work of S. J. “Kitty” Moodley. Interested collectors would perhaps have luck connecting with Columbia University professor Steven C. Dubin who has possession of the reclaimed negatives.

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Read more about: S. J. "Kitty" Moodley, Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

One comment

  1. Shamala Rajah (nee Moodley) /

    This was my Dad, called to rest on 26 September 2016, but his memory lives on through the wonderful curatorship of Steven Dubin!!! I was reminded of many memories from that time. Thank you from the entire family.

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