South African photography snaps up London

'Untitled' by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Photo courtesy of the V&A

London awoke to a new era of South African photographers, as the Figures & Fictions photography exhibition arrived at the V&A Museum.

Each section of the exhibit acts as a brief glimpse into a South African photographer’s portfolio, fuelling a curiosity which demands more prints, and heralds future exhibitions.

Style and subject are blurred throughout, from Santu Mofokeng’s black and white shots of AIDS orphans, to Berni Searle’s abstract studio work.

The highlights come when techniques are mixed – with Hasan and Husain Essop’s staged portrayals of Muslim life, or Zwelethu Mthethwa’s Scottish-inspired ceremonial portraits. The images draw on the nation’s history, but also invite the viewer to explore a diverse culture which often goes unnoticed in mainstream media.

Despite being nearly a generation away from apartheid, Roelof Petrus Van Wyk’s racial types series is given huge prominence at the Porter Gallery. Although a valuable critique of the misuse of photography, the vast frames distract from the true breadth of the exhibition.

A more current political voice comes from Kudzanai Chiurai’s ‘The Parliament’ series, where striking portraits parodies a political framework which champions masculinity.

This dry humour permeates much of the exhibition, touching even on Pieter Hugo’s Ghanaian honey collector, whose poor protective clothing frames him like a comic-book superhero.

Figures & Fictions travels as far as Nigeria and returns via Malawi to Nontsikelelo ‘Lolo’ Veleko’s urban chic street shots. These are similar in style to The Satorialist, and remind the viewer that South African photography has been developing while we have been watching elsewhere.

The exhibition fails only in its attempt to cover too much. But the V&A has opened the door to South African photographers, who have made a grand entrance.

Figures & Fictions runs until 17 July in the Porter Gallery at the V&A Museum.

Victoria & Albert Museum
South Kensington
Cromwell Road
SW7 2RL

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