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This photography exhibition takes an uncompromising look at South African history

By Candy Bowers

Earlier this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art announced a major retrospective of seminal South African photographer David Goldblatt, showcasing the evolution of his work and documenting the evolution of a nation. The museum was working closely with Goldblatt to represent the breadth of his career, leading right up to photos taken in 2018, when he died in June at the age of 87.

Four weeks after Goldblatt’s passing, we spoke to MCA chief curator Rachel Kent, who’d recently driven across the country with him in preparation for the exhibition.

“His health was pretty good last year; he was quite robust and healthy,” Kent says. “Just after we’d done our trip he’d had some explorative surgery and found out there were complications. That’s when they found out about the cancer. On reflection, that was his last big road trip, so I was really fortunate to share it with him.”

The expansive exhibition is over 12 months in the making and will be the most significant showing of Goldblatt’s work in the Southern Hemisphere. It spans six decades, documenting the people, places, industry and landscape of South Africa; from the heart of the apartheid era, to the #rhodesmustfall movement and South Africa today. 

Fifteen-year old Lawrence Matjee after his assault and detention by the Security Police, Khotso House, de Villiers Street, 1985
Photograph: David Goldblatt

“We spent quite a lot of time in Johannesburg and Soweto,” Kent said. “We drove to all the key locations where he’d made his key bodies of work.”

The pair visited the sites of forced removal, where the Afrikaner government bulldozed black-owned homes and farms. She took in the Cape, memorials, prisons and townships, guided by Goldblatt, who once described himself as “self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born”.

Goldblatt was a photographer most interested in exposing the way segregation and systemic racism played out across the diverse communities of South Africa. And there’s a stunning intersection between artistic form and real-life in his career: Goldblatt almost never took photos in colour during apartheid, and you won’t find any colour photographs in the exhibition taken prior to 1994. When questioned about this phenomenon in his work, he said: “During those years colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired.”

The retrospective will include Goldblatt’s parallel documentation of South African and Australian asbestos mining, exposing the human cost of this industry with images of the Western Australian “ghost town” of Wittenoom. But there’s more to this connection; Goldblatt’s work has deep relevance to Australia’s dark history, the current struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, and the lag of colonisation. In fact, South Africa's apartheid system was modelled closely on Queensland's Aboriginal Protection Act of 1897.

In a departure from the immersive video and light projections we’ve seen during recent summers at the MCA, David Goldblatt’s work calls us to look square in the face of our own humanity – and we are all implicated.

“It’s much tougher work,” says Kent. “I’ve always been interested in photography – particularly narrative- and documentary-style photography – work that tells real stories that are important to real people and their lives… When you look at South Africa and the history of colonialism, the destruction and the aftermath, and all of those narratives around race and racial oppression, of course it connects with this country. I mean, obviously, we had the White Australia Act until 1973.”

David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948-2018 is at the Museum of Contemporary Art from October 19.

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