A poignant provincialism infuses the 38 apartheid-era portraits by South African photographer S.J. “Kitty” Moodley that line the walls at Walther Collection Project Space — the first time his work has shown in the United States. A necktied young man displays his briefcase, on which glued letters spell his name, date of birth, and a Bible verse. The hipster in high-waisted pants and peace pendant is just a beat behind the times. Two young women in matching party dresses celebrate the last day at the factory before the holidays.
Moodley, who worked in the city of Pietermaritzburg, photographed nonwhite subjects, or in apartheid verbiage, “Blacks,” “Coloureds,” and “Indians” like himself. The images aren’t overtly political. Whereas photojournalists like Peter Magubane began documenting the fight for freedom and its heroes in the 1950s (a focus later emulated by the “struggle photographers” of the 1980s), Moodley stuck to his commercial studio. It was a space for townspeople to try on guises: formal, stylish, even silly, like the seated woman in sober skirt and blouse who strikes a wry pose, wearing a lampshade on her head.
In period, aesthetic, and staging, the handsome black-and-white shots — made between 1972 and 1984, with subjects positioned against a sober background that a drawn curtain splits into even thirds — bear some relation to the great Malian portraiture school led by Seydou Keita. But what they really constitute is a local record: of Pietermaritzburg folk being and performing themselves, in a factory town at apartheid’s zenith.
We’re fortunate to see them at all. Moodley died in 1987; his relatives eventually sold a pile of negatives to a South African museum, but the curator only wanted those featuring traditional Zulu outfits, famous for their beadwork. The rest was stashed in someone’s garage until 2011, when Steven Dubin, an arts administration professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, learned about it. He’s since archived 1,400 negatives, connected with Moodley’s family, and held exhibitions in Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg.
Some portraits in Zulu garb escaped the first curator’s filter. Most interesting are the hybrids, such as the portrait of a family of seven in which the patriarch and his wife wear dignified Western clothes while two daughters are in Zulu outfits with breasts exposed. The girls’ apparel conveys that they are unmarried, traditional, and dutiful, thus compounding, not diluting, the message of respectability. Such subtle information pervades the show, stoking curiosity about the larger grouping of photos Dubin has shown in South Africa.
A vitrine in the gallery provides some useful context. It includes a street shot of Moodley’s studio — a storefront advertising photography for driving licenses and the reviled passbooks that the regime required nonwhites to carry. We see, too, a photo of Moodley himself at a rally. A fervent enemy of apartheid, he used his studio as a gathering spot for activists. “It was a photo studio, to be sure,” Dubin says, “but it was also a community center where people could meet and talk about politics in a safe space.”
Famous in Pietermaritzburg, Moodley was little known elsewhere. Other photographers, often Indians, played similar roles in other cities. Sean Jacobs, an associate professor of international affairs at the New School and scholar of South African visual culture, says their archives are invaluable in completing our picture of the apartheid era. “People were trying to stay alive, live a life, take photos,” he says. “That intimacy and matter-of-factness of black life, when it comes to South Africa — very little of that has come out yet.”
‘Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits From Apartheid South Africa’
The Walther Collection Project Space, 526 West 26th Street, Suite 718
Through September 3