Monday, February 18, 2013

Architect Lebbeus Woods, South Africa and Apartheid at SFMOMA

This was so much easier to write than yesterday's 'stumble through and keep my fingers crossed piece" on 'Silence' at the BAM/PFA. I keep thinking that if I look at enough conceptual shows and write about them, I will evenutally figure out what the whole stick is.

It hasn't been working that way so far. I liked many of the individual pieces but would not see how they worked into the theme of "Silence."

SFMOMA is open for business on President's Day with a new exhibit of the work of architect Lebbeus Woods. Recognized beyond architecture, Lebbeus Woods (1940–2012) has been hailed by leading designers, filmmakers, writers, and artists alike as a significant voice in recent decades. His works resonate across many disciplines for their conceptual potency, imaginative breadth, jarring poetry, and ethical depth.
from February 16 through June 2, 2013

South Africa and Apartheid: This exhibition illuminates a difficult, and painful period in the recent history of South Africa from the perspectives of three photographers: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, and Billy Monk. The son of Eastern European immigrants, documentary photographer Goldblatt came of age under apartheid and observed the increasing entrenchment of racial inequality in his country. His early project In Boksburg (1982) portrays a typical suburban white community shaped by what the artist calls "white dreams and white proprieties."

The photographs, taken from a mostly frontal, horizontal view point, could be from any white town in the 1950's, with the same racism and ignorance. At that point, the White Afrikaners did not acknowledge black Afrikaners except as servants, to be kept as far away from their privileged life as possible.

In one photograph, a Caucasian politician is photographed, standing in front of a banner which ironically calls for the "brotherhood of man." Another photograph shows Black African workers meeting with white management reflecting a snapshot of black African suspicion and fear vs smug white privilege.

Included at Goldblatt's request, photographs by Cole and Monk expand the exhibition's field of view. Cole, a self-taught black South African documentary photographer, observed the other side of the racial divide in the 1960s, making photographs that are eloquently observant and deeply humane.

Of the three, it is Cole and Monk whose photos are the most revealing and whose stories have the most tragic outcome.

Cole, a tiny (5' 3") black photographer with a huge vision was inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson to created a powerful pictorial record of apartheid South Africa. He was forced into exile in 1966 and his life crumbled. At one point, he was homeless, living on the streets of New York. Mr. Cole died at 49 in 1990, just a week after Nelson Mandela walked free. His sister flew back to South Africa with his ashes on her lap. His images still have the power to shock and anger even those of us who haven't lived under apartheid.

Monk's work provides an extraordinarily evocative glimpse of Cape Town's little-seen late 60s bohemian demi-monde. Monk was a night club bouncer and not very good at his job. In a bid to supplement his income, he started taking photographs of the clientele.

Monk would snap his subjects with the 35mm Pentax camera he had offloaded from one of the Japanese sailors trading under-the-table goods, and sell the pictures as mementoes of the evening. He was a trusted fixture in the club, friendly, part of the relaxed atmosphere where all races would mingle and have fun in a place which ignored South Africa's race laws.

Monk gave up photography when Polaroids begun to flood the snapshot market and tried to make his living in other ways. But his work was discovered by Jac de Villiers, a photographr who had moved into his old studio – he later told de Villiers he had little feeling for this instant product.

 Monk gave up photography when Polaroids begun to flood the snapshot market and tried to make his living in other ways. Later his work was discovered by Jac de Villiers, a photographr who had moved into his old studio – he told de Villiers he had little feeling for this instant product.

Despite his distinctly criminal past (he’d been a safe-breaker, a poacher and done jail-time before he ever became a bouncer), he had settled down somewhat, making a small living running a leather shop and a vegetarian restaurant, just a few blocks down from the Catacombs on Long Street.

An exhibition of the work was opened by David Goldblatt in Johannesburg's Market Gallery in July 1982, but Billy Monk did not attend. He was diving for diamonds off the Port Nolloth coast. The show was critically acclaimed but the itinerant Monk never got to read the reviews nor see the show: he was shot in the chest at close range in a street fight just two weeks after it opened.

In November of the same year, Lin Sampson wrote a wonderfully descriptive feature on Monk's short, fast life for the South African Sunday Times magazine, which was been reprinted in the book, "Billy Monk: Nightclub Photographs, " by Dewi Lewis.

"He died on Saturday evening in a house with turquoise-blue walls and a bar with a glitter top that had lost its shine from too many elbows sliding along it … A girl told me what had happened … Monk died protecting his friend Lionel in a tacky argument over moving furniture … Before he fell to the ground, he stood there helpless and plunging, his arms spread out in shock and pleading. 'Now you've gone 'n' killed me,' he said."

These three groups of pictures are complemented by a selection of Goldblatt's recent, post-apartheid photographs, sober yet hopeful records of an imperfect, still-evolving democracy. Closing March 5.

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