South Africa during Apartheid was a time stained with the tears of bereft black mothers and fathers made absent by the weeks spent working in mining districts, seeing their families at most, only twice a year. During this era, black people were usually photographed running frantically from rubber bullets in smoke-filled streets. Their bloodied, bruised, and beaten bodies were captured in images that were distributed globally. Their pain was palpable exposed with no say in how the media depicted them.
Singarum J. Moodley, a former Indian shoe machinist living in Pietermaritzburg established a studio that stood as a cathartic outlet for the non-white’s plight. He not only captured the poor and working-class at their best, ‘baswenkile,’ his photography fully humanised them. Kitty’s studio, as it was affectionately called, operated under the ever-present spectre of dread, mandated segregation, and police brutality that tried to enforce the erasure of black identity. The pictures he took there ensured that black people were seen in a way that celebrated and glamorised what the regime failed to appreciate. His images were a resistance to the historical authority that exclusively confined the black experience to that of suffering. Moodley’s subjects, smiling, posing, or dancing were immortalised through a lens that before then, didn't acknowledge their multi-layered existence.
The sentiment in Moodley's photographs has worked itself through years of oppression and resurfaces, almost five decades later, as the defiant ghost of revolution in Neo Matloga's new body of work. He collages black life in a deliberate and unapologetic way; he states: "The black experience is multi-layered, and my mission is to create art that reflects this."
Neo was born in 1993 – which was a year of uncertainty as the horrors of the past hung over the dawn of a free South Africa. The country was held in limbo between what was and what could be. He is based in Amsterdam now, but Neo's art is strongly influenced by the nostalgia of his Limpopo roots.
From the intimate scenes of black love, to the stolen moments of black joy, and discrete displays of affection. Warped and distorted in Matloga's colossal mixed-media collage paintings that depict people of colour through a multi-faceted lens, not bound by space nor time.
Tee e tala, is a mixed media painting that features a table and chair installation, with a painting showing off his distorted figures. The work blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, inviting the viewer to the gathering, and asking to be occupied. The viewer then becomes a part of the collage.
The recurring theme of intimacy is further explored in Ke o fa pelo yaka, Ke diile phoso, and Ompile korobela; collage paintings with titles as potent as the intimate moments they depict. In each of these, the distorted figures are intertwined in shared moments of affection. Upon closer observation, the fluidity of the figures unveils the glaring reality of the black sexual experience. The viewer is immediately thrown off by the combination of feminine and masculine features and forced to confront their deep-seated perceptions about race and gender in relation to blackness. The viewer is then pulled out of these intimate settings into what looks like a post-church scene in Sontaga. Here we see a gathering of distorted figures in casual conversation. Behind this gathering, a figure surveys the viewer through a window. The viewer is now both the observer and the observed.
In their shared exhibition, Matloga's paintings and Moodley's photographs hold a mirror up to the observer's inner prejudices and their preconceived ideas of the black body. In both modes of representation, blackness is depicted in a borderless timelessness that undoes what one thinks they know and, similar to the young artist's collaging process, reconstructs a new and possibly uncomfortable reality in the observer's mind.
The light that these two artists shed on the black South African experience through the ages is but a sliver of how blackness is experienced across the world. The lived experiences of people are similar but so diverse. Virginia Mapedzahama and Kwamena Kwansah-Aidoo's explore this in their research essay Blackness as Burden? The Lived Experience of Black Africans in Australia (2017) in which they posit: “...black people are not all the same and they do not all experience their blackness in the same way. In other words, there is a multiplicity of "blacknesses" and a diversity of black experiences and black subjectivities."
Moodley’s black and white photographs and Matloga’s monochromatic palette dares to show blackness in all its metaphorical colours to a world that has declared time and time again that the black experience is as bland as the colour itself. In their work, we’re introduced to the broad spectrum of black life.
The nameless figures are immortalised in two different mediums; in Moodley's portraits, warped by the prejudices of the apartheid era and in Neo's mixed-media paintings distorted by his collage process. While Moodley's photographs pose the question: "who are these people," Neo's collage paintings seem to unwittingly hold the answer. "The importance of this process is a therapeutic one, as I believe I'm the custodian of my own stories. They can be revisited, corrected and re-invented as I wish," much like blackness itself and therein lies the alchemy.
MPANGELE, L. Uncovering the grey area Mpangele, L., 2021. Uncovering the grey area. Something We Africans Got. MAPEDZAHAMA, V. AND KWANSAH-AIDOO, K. Blackness as Burden? The Lived Experience of Black Africans in Australia Mapedzahama, V. and Kwansah-Aidoo, K., 2017. Blackness as Burden? The Lived Experience of Black Africans in Australia. Ph.D. The University of Sydney & Swinburne University of Technology.