In Mikhael Subotzky’s photographs, a representation of South Africa’s socio- political landscape is filtered through the optic nerve of a self-reflexive lens. Adopting documentary techniques, Subotzky’s candid insights are in fact constructed, often made up of individual images blended together using digital software. This negation of documentary experience, offered by the continuous scene of digital montage, underscores the artist’s critical engagement with the mediums perceptual possibilities and limitations. An enduring fascination with the panoptic view unsettles the contradictions inherent in seeing and reading images. Subotzky’s wide-angle montage style yields a particular result in the four walled rooms of prison sells in Dwarsrivier and Pollsmoor, where the artist began using a tripod mounted digital camera to take consecutive frames on a rotating axis.
In the series Die Vier Hoeke 2004, Subotzky began investigating the nuances of the fantastical prison language used in South African penal complexes, rooted in the myth of two nineteenth century bandits, Nongoloza and Kilikijan, who were eventually captured and imprisoned. In order to prevent themselves from succumbing to madness, they reminded each other that they were Die vier Hoeke [inside the four corners] and not umjiegwana [outside]. Today, young men describe the politics and spaces of their ghettos in prison language and on the streets of the Cape Flats, where the concept of Die vier Hoeke is interchangeable with that of umjiegwana. Tension of the outside and the inside reveal equal parts of the same lived experience, one in which young men are bound to spend the first two decades of their adult lives in and out of prison.
Subotzky’s photographs of all black prisoners contained in cramped bunk beds and squeezed onto foam mattresses (Cell 33, E2 Section, 2004) are an open window to the lives of a dispossessed underclass. The young men are bound to spend the first two decades of their adult lives in and out of prison. The physical language of these men suggests both an awareness of the photographer’s presence and an unwillingness to acknowledge his gaze. The erosion of outside and inside is revealed not only by the subjectivity of the inmates but also by the inevitable rift cast between the image and its maker. The point of reversal where the outside becomes inside, speak implicitly of the threshold that separates he who is being seen and he who is seeing. Inevitably, it draws attention to the fact that the continued marginalisation and oppression of black experience in South Africa interdicts the realisation of its full liberation.
© Osei Bonsu, 2014