Monday, May 21, 2012

Pieter Hugo- This Must Be the Place

Photo: Pieter Hugo

This Must Be the Place is an exquisitely reproduced, greatest hits retrospective by this not quite yet middle aged photographer. And make no doubt, Mr. Hugo is an exceptional portraitist. I, along with others, have had our problems with the presentation of his Nollywood series here in the States, namely because of the long and prevailing history of racism in this country, and how racist imagery has played such a vital part in said history- imagery which his Nollywood series can so closely seem to mirror, however innocent his original intent. From this interview, it seems to this day that Mr. Hugo either doesn't get that part, or refuses to do so:

As an artist it's not my responsibility to provide a responsible rendition of how the rest of the world should perceive or not perceive Africa.

I can't speak for all his critics, and certainly no artist anywhere is responsible for how everyone in the world perceives and interprets their work. I can state that an artist who regularly depicts certain groups of people in his art (from which he also makes his living), should at least make a proper effort to ensure that his work is not misconstrued or misrepresented- Shelby Lee Adams goes to particular lengths to explain the imagery and complex history of his Appalachian subjects to the outside world. He feels he owes at least that much to his subjects, if not his viewers. Of course, if you just don't give a shit, or if your goal all along was to simply throw out a group of images with a certain amount of shock value...

I don't think the latter was the case with Pieter Hugo, nor do I think him a racist or uncaring fellow- but I can't help but think he lacks a certain amount of cultural sensitivity. I can fully understand his point that Nollywood was a respectful celebration of the Nigerian film industry, and that he had its full blessing. And I do get "the fun" part-  but he is also old enough to understand how individual images from that series can also play to ridicule and racist stereotypes. He could have used this work to purposely initiate and foster discussion and understanding on issues regarding: photography, colonialism, racist imagery and cultural constructs. Instead, he chose simply to deny any implied responsibility for what that double edged sword of an essay offers.

The book, of course, doesn't concentrate solely on that essay- portraits from the computer scavenging series depict a living hell where current age modernity in the Western world is stripped to its most primitive, toxic reality in the Third. The African judges in traditional European judicial garb complete with white wigs accentuate, as if necessary, just how ridiculous those costumes are- on any man or woman of any culture. The Hyena And Other Men also received criticism for furthering the exoticism of "the other," and it's a valid criticism- although being more of a straight documentary nature, one hard to argue without issues of censorship coming into play. Again, a more open dialogue from the get go would have worked wonders. There are even a few intriguing B&W portraits taken with some bizarre emulsion that accentuates the pigment in one's skin- the end result making even Whites look very, very dark. A Hugo nod that beneath it all, we're all the same...

This Must Be The Place contains a wide variety of truly excellent portraits from a wide variety of essays, many of which are laden with the geopolitical subtexts of historical colonization and present day globalization- Chrissakes, it is in great part what takes his work beyond mere prettiness. So why deny where it does, in fact, take us when it does?


Jim Johnson said...

Hugo clearly is a talented photographer. And I like some of this new work quite a bit; you can compare it to how Burtynsky and Salgado, for instance, approach similar themes. But some of his earlier work displays a sort of moral and political tone-deafness that I find pretty much inexcusable. Some relevant posts here:

Benjamin said...

Good, strong, thought provoking post Stan. Thank for sharing.

John Edwin Mason said...

Nicely done, Stan.

As you know, I think that Hugo's early photos are more pernicious than you do. I also think that their look (as opposed to their subject) was a conscious and cynical pandering to the art market.

By the way, the reception of his work that you find so troubling in the US is something that you'll find in London, Zurich, and, yes, Cape Town.

This work is aimed at affluent whites, who think of themselves as racially liberal, but who (like Hugo in the interview that you linked to) refuse to acknowledge their place of privilege.

It's worth digging around in the Africa is a Country archives (wonderuful blog) to find an account of an opening of a Hugo show at a chic Cape Town gallery.