Transition: Contested landscapes in South Africa

A photography essay including work by Philippe Chancel, Raphaël Dallaporta, Pieter Hugo, Santu Mofokeng, Zanele Muholi, Jo Ractliffe, Thabiso Sekgala and Alain Willaume. Photography Editor: Rebecca McClelland.

Philip Maughan writes: In southern Africa, landscape photography is always political. The lens was a key tool in the appropriation of land by Europeans. In 1858, the Scottish missionary David Livingstone asked his brother Charles to photograph an expedition to the Victoria Falls (which he had “discovered” in 1855). He wanted “to extend the knowledge already attained of the geography and mineral and agricultural resources” there, in the hope that “raw material” might be “exported to England in return for British manufactures”.

When those that followed came to depict the land for its own sake, they relied on a visual aesthetic adopted from French art. They did not record the landscape: they “invented” it. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, white salon photographers developed an iconography that aimed to reveal a virgin territory whose mountains, plains and tribal inhabitants illustrated the grandeur of the imperial project.

A century after the Natives Land Act 1913, which restricted black South Africans from legally acquiring land, a group of photographers affiliated with Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt, and with Les Rencontres d’Arles in France has produced a body of work to interrogate this complex history.

Questions of ownership, identity, reparation and brutality are wrapped up in images of anti-fracking demonstrations in the Karoo, portraits of platinum miners taken before and after last year’s massacre at Marikana, and the annual Umkhosi Womhlanga, at which 15,000 young women are investigated, and then celebrated, for their chastity.

“South Africa is such a fractured, schizophrenic, wounded and problematic place,” says Pieter Hugo (left), whose contribution to the project focuses on the roads around gold mines, coming full circle on Livingstone’s hunt for “raw material”. “I am looking for images that reflect the aftermath and psychology of the failed colonial experiment.”
 

Pieter Hugo (above)
Johannesburg, Gauteng Province
The South African Pieter Hugo was commissioned to take landscape photographs and chose to focus on the Witwatersrand, the gold mining region that surrounds Johannesburg. He meandered along the city’s Main Reef Road, which connects the towns that have sprung up close to the mines. Hugo was attracted to the notion that Main Reef Road is a modern equivalent of the Roman Via Appia. “All South Africa’s wealth was generated along this road,” he says.

 

Jo Ractliffe (above)
Schmidtsdrift and Platfontein, Northern Cape Province
For the past five years from her base in Johannesburg, Jo Ractliffe has focused on the aftermath of the Angolan civil war, which began in 1975. Recently she has been exploring old South African Defence Force bases. Black settlers were expelled from these small towns in the 1950s to 1970s. There were training camps here during the 1966-89 “border war”, and then the SADF relocated recruits from Angola to the sites during the transition from apartheid. “There are conflicting narratives,” Ractliffe says. “There were reports of people being forced to volunteer. But then there are other stories, saying the SADF saved them. We fled Angola, they say, as if the passage to South Africa was the passage out of slavery.”

Philippe Chancel (above)
Magopa, North-West Province
It is hard to determine the borders of the Magopa region precisely, as it was wiped off the map years ago. Black settlers bought the land, originally Bakwena territory, from Afrikaner farmers in the early 20th century and lived here until 1983, when the apartheid government drove them out. Large diamond and platinum mining companies have since turned the land inside out and fostered the creation of townships. Philippe Chancel visited Lonmin’s concession at Marikana before and after the strike that led to the killing of 34 miners last August. “Even the South African media called it a massacre,” he says. “It was impossible to remain indifferent.” The grey slag churned from the earth contrasts starkly with the reddish rock.

 

Thabiso Sekgala (above)
Magopa, North-West Province
Thabiso Sekgala was born in Soweto in 1981. In 2012 he and Philippe Chancel travelled to Magopa to investigate the problem of contemporary restitution of land in the so-called Black Spots, from which black South Africans were expelled under the apartheid-era “forced removals” programme. He took these photographs around Marikana, where the inhabitants live in rudimentary shelters, without electricity, dwarfed by the cables and pylons that power the mines.

 

Raphaël Dallaporta (above)
Johannesburg, Gauteng Province
Raphaël Dallaporta worked in Afghanistan before coming to South Africa. There he collaborated with archaeologists in remote areas and found that standard documentary techniques were unsuitable. Instead he developed an “inhuman”, aerial point-of-view, which conceives of the land in terms
of resources or from the perspective of a military strategist. The photographs were taken using a remote-controlled helicopter with six propellers – a “drone”.

Alain Willaume (above)
Karoo
The Frenchman Alain Willaume travelled to the semi-arid Karoo to document new interest in the region, spurred by the presumed large underground reserves of shale gas and prospects of exploiting them by fracking. “It’s like a wandering black hole,” Willaume says. “A landscape living on borrowed time, the unreal sucking in the real.” No fracking sites exist yet, so it took time to decide what to photograph.

 

Santu Mofokeng (above)
Karoo
Santu Mofokeng’s meditations on landscape concern areas of the Karoo under investigation by Shell, which plans to exploit local reserves of shale gas. “Whose land is this anyway? There’s going to be fracking everywhere you have shale,” Mofokeng says. “It does not matter if the government is corrupt or weak – the only way to stop fracking in this country is if all people speak with one voice. It can be used as an opportunity to bring together different peoples in a fight against this scourge and use the unifying energy to pursue nation-building.”

Zanele Muholi (above)
KwaZulu-Natal Province
The artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi was born in a township in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. She returned to her home province in the east of South Africa to take pictures of the annual Umkhosi Womhlanga (or Reed Dance), at which 15,000 young women gather for a ceremony to recognise their virginity. “The young women must be checked to ascertain that they are virgins in order to join the celebrations,” Muholi explains. “Tradition puts value on a woman who is still a virgin upon marriage. This event is a source of pride for young mothers and the women raising them, but it is also criticised.” She also attended the funeral of Mandisa Mbambo (far right) in Durban. Mandisa, a 33-year-old football player who was a lesbian, was found at her home in August 2012. She had been raped and murdered.

"Transition" is at the Atelier de Mécanique, Parc de Arles, in the Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône, France, until 22 September rencontres-arles.com marketphotoworkshop.co.za

Sponsored by South Africa France Seasons 2012 & 2013. With the support of: Areva, Air France, Bouygues Travaux Publics, EDF, GDF-Suez, Mazars, Fondation Orange, Total.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage