Pieter Hugo


In South Africa, the push toward engaged photography unites photographers of different generations, from David Goldblatt through Roger Ballen and Guy Tillim to Zanele Muholi and Pieter Hugo and, more recently, Mikhael Subotzky. Hugo’s photographic practice has its origins in the tradition of photojournalism with a humanistic focus; he was directly influenced by the work of Tillim and Goldblatt just as he in turn has influenced his onetime assistant Subotzky. Moved by the impetus to communicate the political reality of apartheid and its aftermath, Hugo does not eschew aestheticization, but his approach remains narrative and denunciatory.

The series “Messina/Musina,” 2006, is articulated through successive ambiguities, beginning with the double title that bears witness to the linguistic corruption of colonialism. With just enough detachment to avoid sentimentality, Hugo describes the condition of the “broken people”—the inhabitants of Musina, a ghost town on the border with Zimbabwe, a place where it seems that the rule of law has never arrived and never will. It is a place of failure, born of the disillusionment that followed Mandela’s election as president of South Africa, when the great change that was hoped for did not come to pass. Musina is the northernmost town in South Africa, and therefore the most distant from Cape Town, where Hugo lives. It is a place on the edge, and not only geographically.

The twenty-four photographs in the show are characterized by vivid colors, as opposed to the ocher backgrounds of a posturban Africa that dominate another recent series by Hugo, “The Hyena & Other Men,” 2005–2007. Among them are some group portraits, the only works in “Messina/Musina” made using artificial light; depicted inside their dwellings, a wide variety of people share a sense of ungainliness and emptiness, expressed through their bodies. The artist defines the figures through their sheer lack of reaction to an atmosphere that hovers somewhere between the dramatic and the tragicomic. But the most explicit portraits of the inhabitants of this strange place are, paradoxically, the views of landscapes that reveal the remains of human actions. The still bloody corpses of animals or a bed made from a simple carton on the ground are all depicted in a clear style that is sober enough to disarm the viewer.

Hugo seems to look with the gaze of a foreigner at a place where the inhabitants themselves seem like strangers in their own city. Musina is a place without time and, above all, without history. No one is originally from the city, and it is inhabited only by people who have simply ended up there. It has been said that “all eras are contemporary,” but if so, Musina fits into none of them. Hugo’s detachment is not judgmental; it represents a vision dazed by a distant reality. The artist shows bodies and places that summarize the grave social problems of our time (unemployment, domestic violence, exploitation of children), without sensationalism. His work evokes the mutations of power, an idealism mired in failure, and a fascination with the ritual aspect of African (that is, precolonial) tradition, often articulated through a morbid relationship between humans and animals, in a context of displaced people who do not know where to go, perhaps because they have forgotten from where they have come.

Francesco Stocchi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.