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Pieter Hugo

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01 - 10 DECEMBER 2015

Pieter Hugo: From the unsaid to the undead


The view of the world framed by photographer Pieter Hugo concedes the precariousness of our existence. Hugo’s extensive body of work has continually found creative impetus in capturing both the realities at the edges of society, and life at the edges of reality, and constantly challenges the documentary mode. Pressing against fears and requiting dark longings, Hugo’s photography enters into the spaces that most of us avoid, looks deeply into the crevices and exposes society’s entangled belief systems.


Flying just under the radar, but manifesting in series such as Nollywood (2009), is Hugo’s attraction to popular culture and supernatural worlds uncovered within certain genres of cinema, literature and music in particular. Cultural critic TJ Demos has noted that Hugo’s photography exists in the tension between ‘ecological disaster and creative survival’, and this imaginary takes on new and at times grotesque enunciations when applied to the artist’s experimentations with moving images.


In 2011 Hugo collaborated with musician Spoek Mathambo on the music video for Control, a ramped up house beat cover of She’s Lost Control by British post-punk group Joy Division, first released in 1979. Mathambo, dressed in white suit and gloves, with a megaphone to his lips, marches, dances and preaches through a dystopic scene of burning and abandoned buildings to a congregation of children who increasingly show signs of possession and then revolt. Religious imagery permeates through a mixing of its many signs and symbols, but no single ideology dominates. Shot entirely in black and white, the video is a riot of baptisms and convulsions, vomiting, white paint and powder. Its macabre undertones are laced with humour.


In his recent music video Dirty (2015), created for Cape Town hip-hop artists Dookoom, Hugo returns to a carnivalesque underworld. The video is grotesque and provocative and for this it could be read as a continuation of some of the concerns Hugo engaged in Nollywood. Reflecting on the visual tropes of the supernatural and the grotesque preferred by the Nigerian film industry, writer Chris Abani suggests that as ‘the subtle manipulation of the human form … the grotesque engenders sympathy, revulsion and real fear simply by employing self-recognition with a displacement’ – strategies which Hugo enacts in Dirty and indeed much of his lens-based work.


Hugo is aware that his questioning of the world he inhabits, from a privileged position, often generates yet more questions, rather than offering any absolute answers. One that is raised over and over again is whether it is possible for a white South African photographer to photograph the black body and not enter into the dominant structure that perpetuates racial hierarchies and results in exploitation and stereotyping. Yet, however uncomfortable this question and its potential answers continue to be, allowing them to surface creates spaces to interrogate and articulate the nuances that otherwise remain unsaid.


Hansi Momodu-Gordon

November 2015

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