Thursday, 23 August 2012

Parker's photos: small things, ordinary people and powerful engagement

This week I attended the launch of Iris Dawn Parker’s solo photo exhibition in downtown Johannesburg. Although Parker describes the work as focusing on the ordinary, the experience of viewing the photos was far from mundane – the photos engage in powerful ways. Walking into the gallery, the large and framed prints immediately capture the attention - the size allows for light and detail to come to the fore.

In many of the prints, the figures look directly at you, their eyes engaging, their world(s) validated. They are in the world, the figures seem to be saying, and you must reckon with their presence and with the fact that they are a part of the unfolding story of things. As some of the titles convey, something of that firm stance is articulated in how the subjects communicated to the photographer: “Yes, you may take a picture”; “I do this (work the land) for you and me”. “I am beautiful”. Many of the images tell of vibrant community life: the people (as well as the settlements and practices that sustain them) are lively and appear to have a sense of determination to survive or overcome the pressures that abound. 

One of the photos features a large metal pot cooking over a fire. This pot stands alone in a small alcove of blackened zinc sheets. In the midst of informality, life goes on, the fire must be tamed, and – given the pot’s size – food must be shared. It is a picture of strength and resilience amid the precarious existence in settlements of this nature.

In another of Parker’s prints, a worker stands high up against the wall that he is building. Much of the photo is in a sense a void (a big expanse of sky) but the photographer suggests there is something in the elevation which has value. Her title “cloud work” helps to throw new light on what would otherwise be an unremarkable picture and a commonplace job. 

Initially I thought the colour photo of Zoo Lake a little flat. Parks such as Zoo Lake in South Africa are contested spaces:  different uses sometimes collide, notions of “order” differ, formal events vex the “peace” that regular users enjoy, residents are sometimes possessive of the space, the old Zoo Lake coffee shop died and a flashy restaurant rose up and, sometimes, children fall off the little boats and drown. These kinds of issues seem at odds with the idyllic picture on the gallery wall. But one looks again at the photo, and the realisation dawns that, despite the flipside of tension, Zoo Lake maintains a balance – a balance that in its own way is part of the essence of life.

Some of the photos contain representations of inanimate objects only: patterns, flow and juxtaposition that, working through the imagination, evoke certain feelings. Striking here is this image: in a cramped backyard space (possibly in Alexandra township), someone has washed three children’s soft toys and hung them on washing line.

Parker has a keen eye, and allows herself (and is allowed) to get close to the people she shoots; and she brings them closer to us – into engagement with us. They speak to us. Through their stance and their gaze, the subjects are narrating a part of their journeys within community life and within the bigger narrative that is Mzansi today.  

The exhibition: The Quotidian Life: The importance of small things. 19 August to 19 September 2012, Museum Africa, Johannesburg.