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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain