Arts & Culture: Figures & Fictions at the V&A

'Babalwa', (from the series Real Beauty), Jodi Bieber, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

It seems like a cliché, or a dreadful pun, to say that a medium which began in black and white might offer a particularly clear window into a country in which, more than any other in the world, a preoccupation with colour has poisoned social relations.

Recalling her childhood in Cape Town, the curator of Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, Tamar Garb, observed that “one’s way of negotiating the place was over determined by the social and political structures that taught you who you could talk to, how you could talk to people, how you could behave.” In this profoundly disturbing, disturbed society, photography offered the possibility that the social, cultural and moral distortions of Apartheid could be exposed by a documentary art form that could bring those contradictions right into the viewer’s face.

In South Africa, Garb argues, photographers have traditionally used three distinct modes of representation to tell the story of the place. One of these, dominant during the middle of the twentieth century, is the documentary mode described above. Another is the tradition of portraiture – I have a photo of my great-great-great-grandfather shot in a studio in Cape Town at the turn of the last century that can attest to the long roots of this genre. The third is the ethnographic, which collected and catalogued people, particularly non-whites, as nothing more than types, exemplars, specimens; almost an extension of the flora and fauna, Garb argues.

Having begun to think about the richness of contemporary South African photography after curating a show on contemporary art in London in 2007, Garb approached the V & A with the idea of putting on an exhibition which could challenge the dominance of these three modes, and show the subtleties and richness of contemporary photography in South Africa. She has succeeded in unearthing a number of photographers who are well aware of the role of these three traditions and capable of exposing the ironies and contradictions in South Africa’s photographic heritage.

'Blitz Maaneveld', David Goldblatt, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Roelof Petrus van Wyk deliberately subverts the ethnographic tradition with his series of pictures of Afrikaners – including Yolandi Vi$$er of Die Antwoord – who are depicted as though being subjected to examination or to measurement in a series of profiles and headshots. He thus parodies the fascination of ethnographers with native South Africans by his portrayal of twenty first century members of Africa’s only white tribe. Pieter Hugo and Jo Ratcliffe produce interesting reflections on the rest of Africa, and of the influence of their home country throughout the continent. Ratcliffe’s Angolan landscapes reflect on the aftermath of South Africa’s ‘Border War’ in the 70s and 80s, while Hugo depicts a worker at a toxic waste dump in Ghana with the words ‘Sun City’ (a gambling resort near Johannesburg) on his t-shirt.

A number of the works are deeply introspective, personal and sometimes ambiguous. Santu Mofokeng’s portraits, including of his HIV-positive brother, raise the spectre of human mortality, while Berni Searle’s work clearly reveals her background in sculpture, installation and video.

Graeme Williams’ work is the highlight of the exhibition for me (and I haven’t even mentioned David Goldblatt, easily the most famous photographer in the show). Seeking to move beyond the documentary tradition and capture a mood rather than an event, Williams shot street scenes that were deliberately confusing and difficult to interpret. “I wanted viewers to be slightly unsure of what was going on in each photograph, and this reflects how I felt about change in South Africa at the time,” he said in an interview with Garb.

Zwelethu Mthethwa’s photographs of young Zulu men dressed in ceremonial clothes remove them from their ceremonial context, placing them alone or in small groups in the landscape. This highlights the individuality of the subject and probably reduces the likelihood that the London audience will assume that they have seen this before, as perhaps they might if presented with a more familiar portrayal of Zulu ritual. The exhibition challenges our expectations of what South African photography should look like, and is the stronger for it. (For example, there are no pictures of rich white people walking past beggars with a just-in-focus Coca-Cola ad in the background, or of black men selling ice cream to white sunbathers on Camps Bay beach.)

Indeed, the viewer’s expectations are the elephant in the room. Sometimes it feels like the photographers have tried too hard to challenge these, as in a number of portraits of LGBT South Africans. The act of challenging conventions can sometimes in itself become a cliché. However, it’s important not to overstate this objection, and in general the quality of the work is consistently high.

South Africa is an endlessly fascinating place; troubled, poor in a lot of ways, but rich in lots of others. It’s also incredibly diverse, (much more than most people in Britain probably realise), and in this sense at least is probably more comparable with, say, Brazil than with Zimbabwe. I began this article by talking about black and white; well, you should see what people can do with colour film nowadays.

Figures & Fictions is on until 17 July at the V&A museum