The late South African photographer’s close friend and mentee explores Golblatt’s “living memory” in a new show at Pace Gallery
David Goldblatt’s red-roofed bungalow in the Johannesburg suburb of Fellside was more than just a family home. For generations of South African artists, among them William Kentridge, Jo Ractliffe and Zanele Muholi, it was a place of secular pilgrimage. Muholi, who has curated a selection of 45 photos by Goldblatt at Pace Gallery in New York, fatefully made this journey in the mid 2000s. Goldblatt warmly recalled the visit by his soon-to-be protégé a year before his death in 2018: “She phoned and made an appointment, she arrived at our house, and she said, ‘You’re going to mentor me.’”
Goldblatt’s account foregoes Muholi’s chosen pronouns, they/them. He was not being unkind. “I have a particular relationship with Zanele,” Goldblatt told me once. This relationship predated Muholi’s adoption of the gender-neutral designation sometime after completing an MFA in documentary media at Toronto’s Ryerson University in 2009.
In a press statement accompanying David Goldblatt: Strange Instrument, which gathers his black-and-white work made between 1962 and 1990, Muholi describes Goldblatt as “a friend and a father figure”. It is not puffery. “Some of us grew up without fathers,” Muholi told me in 2017. “He filled that role. I could be me, and I had no reservations.” They praised Goldblatt’s “open-mindedness and willingness to listen,” as well as his photographic method of “going back, following up and revisiting”. Reciprocity figured deeply in their relationship. Muholi knew of Goldblatt’s love of Edward Weston and Bill Brandt’s nudes. “He captured the most beautiful portrait of me in the nude,” they stated.
The idea of harnessing the unlikely energy that existed between a white heterosexual Jewish man of Lithuanian ancestry born in 1930 and a Black lesbian Zulu non-binary person born in 1972 came from Lauren Panzo, Pace’s head of photography. “I knew that David was a mentor to Muholi and that they attended Photo Market Workshop, which was founded by David,” explained Panzo, referring to the Johannesburg school where Muholi studied photography from 2001 to 2003. Pace provided Muholi with an edit of about 85 handprints available from the David Goldblatt Legacy Trust, which they whittled down to the final 45. Muholi, who lives in Durban, devised the installation of the prints into 23 discrete thematic clusters – reflecting their relationship and engagement with the images.
Muholi’s selection foregrounds Goldblatt’s career-defining apartheid archive and includes some works shown on the late photographer’s 1998 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Among the images is his 1986 portrait of Luke Kgatitsoe in a three-piece suit sitting on the bulldozed remnants of his stone house, as well as two meticulously observed architectural studies of Afrikaner Protestant Churches, taken in 1983 and 1986. At Pace, Goldblatt’s two church photos are displayed with another majestically upright – and uptight – structure, a concrete monument to Afrikaner pioneers that Goldblatt photographed in 1990. The grouping of buildings is presented at eye-level on Pace’s unadorned white wall, and relationally operate as a reflection ‘On Architecture / Pokey Structures’.
‘Pokey’ is perhaps a blithe take on a subject that, for Goldblatt, linked an orchestration of bricks and mortar to “an intricate web of ideas and values which constituted the beliefs of this community,” as he wrote in 1998. Muholi’s exhibition deploys a host of Sontagian prepositions to account for Goldblatt’s dispassionate frontal portraits, cropped figures, ambulant observations and courteous domestic interiors. ‘On Movements, City Life’, for example, a characteristically terse selection of three works from his essay on whiteness, In Boksburg (1982), struggles to elucidate a well-known body of work other than to declare its urban context.
Strange Instrument derives its name from a quote in which Goldblatt deliberates on the camera’s dual utility as a thinking device and apparatus that grants extraordinary permission to look. It is not the first exhibition to creatively intervene with, and disrupt the chronologies and thematic contexts Goldblatt imposed on his photos. In 2018, curator Josh Ginsburg’s Picture Theory at A4 Arts Foundation in Cape Town similarly attempted to renegotiate the relationship between the unit and whole in Goldblatt’s photography by presenting “unexpected relationships across decades and series”. The provocation worked, and didn’t, which is ultimately true of Muholi’s atomised reimagining of their former mentor and friend’s earlier work.
David Goldblatt: Strange Instrument is on show at Pace Gallery, New York until 27 March, 2021
Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. He has published two books, Irma Stern: African in Europe - European in Africa (2021) and The Marquis of Mooikloof and Other Stories (2006), and edited three volumes of essays, most recently The Journey: New Positions on African Photography (2020). He has contributed to recent monographs by Onejoon Che, Margaret Courtney-Clarke, David Goldblatt, Jo Ractliffe, Lindokuhle Sobekwa and Mikhail Subotzky. He is a contributing editor to Frieze magazine.