It would not be indulgent to describe Ashley Walters’ exhibition at the Sanlam Art Gallery, Uitsig, as a complex, critical celebration of a community – in fact, it would almost be a slight.
During a walkabout of the exhibition, the artist stated that his intervention with the scenes of the photographs is minimal – “I don’t want to direct in terms of what it is I want to show. I’d rather just wait and wait and wait.” Aside from basic editing, the colours and shapes of the moment are delivered as they were captured: a piece of information which immediately alters how the viewer experiences the work.
The audience is made aware of the capacity of everyday objects to attract and repel. In Dinner, Lantana road, a raw, plucked headless chicken is pictured sitting in a sink, half submerged in water with the drain plugged. Perched around the basin area are three circular containers. Geometric harmony is fostered by these three spheres placed around the rectangular basin, all neatly tucked inside the even bigger rectangle of Walters’ frame. The colours are muted without being insipid. The basin gleams, but its silver patina has honeyed down in tone into something not too dissimilar from the prostrate chicken. The differing textures seem heightened. The scene is trite, the photograph is striking.
This conflicting beauty is evenly distributed among the other 38 photographs in the exhibition, including a traffic accident, an abandoned house, a community fair, a construction site and scenes of Walters’ own family’s lives. The eerie, wordless music that drifts down from a new video piece playing on a loop upstairs serves as auditory confirmation of the fact that this exhibition is not a voyeuristic glimpse into a marginalized community. The drowned and denuded chicken discussed above does not suggest homely smells and nourishment. It highlights the predation that informs life in Uitsig. Even the quiet sacredness of the supper table seems to recall trauma.
In the thesis informing this body of work, Walters (2013) stated “Uitsig articulates a separation of bodies, homes and dreams and is a ghostly reminder, articulated through the photographs, of the ramifications of a past that [has] not yet subsided into the apparent safety of the history books”. The community, ringed by an airport and industrial paraphernalia, is plagued with drugs, gang violence and crime. The vigilance necessary to navigate this space makes the person living in it more aware of their movements, and this awareness is brought to the exhibition.
With the explosion of photography today, there is the threat of having “seen this before”. But in Uitsig the ‘clichés’ possess a lexical diversity, and pull the viewer in with detail and uncertainty. All of these photographs tell multiple stories simultaneously. In one of the most poignant works, Monster, Ravensmead Annual High School Fair, a carnival ride is captured in a moment of extreme ambiguity.
At the entrance to the ride, the pink of the sign, suspended at the top of the composition, goes beyond a magnetic neon – it brings to mind radiated flesh. Beneath and behind, the octopod monster’s cartoonishly severe brow frames an eye staring placidly somewhere outside the photograph’s frame, mirroring the two visible figures. One figure has his back turned away from the camera and another is caught staring at some unidentifiable point. None of the eyes make contact. The quaint blue cars at the ends of the tentacles are entirely unoccupied but the suckers underneath are festively lit up. In conspiracy with the romance of the twilit sky, and in spite of the order created by the metal bannisters, the preternaturally saturated colours of the composition suggest a corrupted gaiety. The pinks, blues, greens and yellows are repugnant in their sweetness. The viewer oscillates between wonder and apprehension. The image is beautiful and uncomfortable. In this exhibition, the shimmering banalities are the surface layer of something sinister at its best, and tragic at its worst.
Added to this, is the inadvertent statement the exhibition makes via its location. The Sanlam gallery may fulfill a necessary purpose, as only one other gallery is reported to operate in the area, close to Uitsig. However, there is an irony enacted when you have to pass through a boomgate to enter the fortress-like headquarters of a major financial institution to witness an exhibition about a nearby ‘working-class’ community.
This show is emblematic of the tensions in Cape Town, and South Africa as a whole, where locations are loaded, and barriers and matters of access bar the people of a community from seeing even themselves. The exhibition itself shows that the legacy of apartheid has not dissipated with time. It has merely evolved into smaller rituals of exclusion, often centered on the benevolence of institutions.
“Walters’ photographic work engages profound questions, asking us to take the act of looking seriously- as the visible and invisible are not simple binaries” states Ishmael Farouk (2015), in an essay published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. The viewer, with their privileged access, is not put in a position of knowledge. They are invited to look deeper and ask questions.
In an introductory essay to the exhibition’s catalogue, Stefan Hundt (2015), the Curator of the Sanlam Gallery states “we don’t get to ‘know’ Uitsig, but we get to know Ashley Walters’s intimacy with Uitsig”. Walters himself states that he doesn’t presume to represent the community; his goal is to capture his own experience and to share it.
See a few photographs from the exhibition below.
Walters has just been awarded an Apexart Fellowship to New York in November, which you can read more about here.
Hundt.S. 2015. Introduction. Ashley Walters: Uitsig. Sanlam Art Gallery. Koerikai.
Farouk.I. 2015. Out of sight. Uitsig. Walking with Ashley Walters. Ashley Walters: Uitsig. Sanlam Art Gallery. Koerikai.
Walters.A. 2013. Uitsig: A Photographic investigation into the landscape, structures and objects of Uitsig and the surrounding areas of Parrow, Industria, Ravensmead, Cravenby, Belhar and Eureka. Ashley Walters studio.com