by Cesca Janece Waterfield
From her long orange dress peeks a turquoise tank top. Her stockings are bright red. Her friend stands beside her in a yellow mini-dress, black tights and white platform shoes. The pair’s eccentric fashion radiates youth and resembles that of the renowned Japanese youth movement who assembles in Tokyo. Or this could be a scene glimpsed near Virginia Commonwealth University.
But these are photos taken in Johannesburg, South Africa, a nation that for the second half of the 20th century was gripped by apartheid, an unshakable and absolute system of racial discrimination. Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko has drawn worldwide attention for photographing these hipsters whose street style is making – among others – the fashion world take note: The South African edition of Elle magazine features them next month, calling them “Smarteez” after the multicolored candy. The images show that 16 years after the fall of apartheid, the country’s culture and identity continue to change as the nation becomes increasingly global.
Some of Veleko’s work will soon appear in a pioneering Richmond exhibit of art and documentary photography that shows how South Africans endured, resisted and transcended apartheid. “Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa Since 1950” is a collection of historic prints, contemporary photographs and video art that opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Aug. 21. Nine years in the making, “Darkroom” was curated by Tosha Grantham, whose catalogue of the same name was honored at this year’s Independent Publisher Book Awards. Grantham, who traveled to South Africa several times in putting together the book, says documentary and art photography of the lives of South Africans can provide penetrating looks at daily life there.
“One of the things about photography in South Africa that’s really important is that it offers a sense of immediacy and presence that is difficult in other media,” Grantham says.
While the eye is on South Africa, one aim of this innovative exhibit is to get Richmond talking about – well, Richmond.
“It felt like a really great opportunity to discuss some things in an international context that presented difficultly as a local dialogue,” Grantham says. “Having this conversation around what’s going on in South Africa provided a great chance to talk about some of the parallels and also some of the perceptions or misperceptions about life in the United States or life in the South.”
To assemble the 112 pieces in the show, Grantham examined nearly 4000. Seen in “Darkroom” is a diverse group of 18 photographers and video artists who rose to prominence during apartheid’s rule as well as young photographers who established careers after its end, like Veleko, who was born in 1977.
Santu Mofokeng is respected for documenting the struggle against apartheid. His black and white photos of African Independent church services are resounding images of human spirit and endurance during difficult times. Full-length color portraits taken by Sukhdeo Bobson Mohanlall provide a glimpse into the lives of urban South Africans in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Also included are well-known photographers and video artists William Kentridge, Jürgen Schadeberg, Sue Williamson, David Goldblatt, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Roger Ballen and Ian Berry. Younger artists include Tracey Rose, Robin Rhode and Veleko.
“I think that Richmond has a lot of fabulous things to offer,” Grantham says. “There are tremendous artists working here. But sometimes what may be the historical legacy – the end of the Civil War, the capital of the Confederacy – overshadows some of the dynamic, more contemporary things going on. Having work from South Africa here I hope encourages some local dialogue about perception and things that are familiar and unfamiliar and [will] show the work of artists who are amazing and deserve to be shown to Richmond audiences.”
“Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa Since 1950” opens Aug. 21 at the VMFA, 200 N. Boulevard, $8 – $10, children 6 and younger are free. Buy tickets online, at the VMFA, or by calling 340-1405.