Critics’ Picks

Zwelethu Mthethwa, untitled, 2010, color photograph, 32 x 41”. From the series “The Brave Ones,” 2010.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, untitled, 2010, color photograph, 32 x 41”. From the series “The Brave Ones,” 2010.


“Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography”

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
April 2–July 17, 2011

“Figures & Fictions” brings together photographs taken in the past decade by artists living in South Africa. Most compelling are the images of confident members of the “born free” generation that has been raised in the postapartheid environment. Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko, for instance, presents work from her series “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” 2003–10, wherein she captures South Africans asserting their individuality, posing as if on the pages of flamboyant and expensive magazines. They flaunt their style, but the hybrid clothing combinations they piece together reflect inventiveness rather than wealth. The Girl on Long Street, Cape Town, Western Cape, 2007, for example, reflects the photographer’s ability to capture and document the changes of attitude in South Africa; the subject here wears vibrant stripes with worn tights and a cheap bag.

Adjacent to these vivid images are pensive black-and-white works by David Goldblatt, Jo Ractliffe, and Zanele Muholi. The impact of colonization is most explicitly explored by Zwelethu Mthethwa in his series “The Brave Ones,” 2010, which documents Zulu boys from the Shembe church wearing pink gingham or rich red tartan kilts with tribal hats, a mixed visual code that evokes the Scottish Highlanders who were deployed to the region in the late nineteenth century. The boys pose before the lush backdrop of the KwaZulu Natal, aka the “garden province,” making them appear timeless in an Arcadian landscape.

There is a great deal of posing in this show; witness, for instance, Mikhael Subotzky’s large-scale images of security guards stationed at their hutlike posts, in both interior and exterior shots. Clearly, a vital and sophisticated photographic culture has emerged in postapartheid South Africa, and many of the seventeen photographers here have been keenly observing social rituals as reflections of the changing culture.