Art – The bleak betrayal of a techno dream

2010-11-13 10:28

Under the gaze of photographer Pieter Hugo, the land of the fabled Black Stars, Ghana, yields no romantic Afro-optimisms. Instead it is a dark and desperate portrayal of humans in pain.

A newly mounted exhibition of his work, titled Permanent Error, is on at Brodie/Stevenson’s new premises in Braamfontein.

The work presents us with a collection of pictures of the people and landscape of an expansive dump of obsolete technology located outside a slum called
Agbogbloshie on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

We learn through the show’s ­accompanying text that Hugo spent a year in the area producing this work.

It comprises still photographs and a series of multi-screen ­installations of footage ­representing the same subjects – in the video work, the surroundings are ­afforded the freedom of movement and time.

In the photographs, on the other hand, everything stands amid the gloomy landscape, arrested by the photographer’s and subsequently the viewer’s gaze.

Perhaps what becomes ­important is that Ghana’s historical position as the first African ­country to wrench itself from ­colonial rule can’t be ignored when reading this work.

Hence it matters that Hugo’s eye fashions a post-apocalyptic vision where post-colonial dreams ­deferred fester like sores.

He confronts us with emblems of failed Western models of ­development; and the attendant despair that follows the death of lofty national, or even continental, grand narratives for marginalised citizens.

Where the promise of technological advancement had been that of better living standards for all, Hugo points to a wasteland where human beings, cattle and dogs are equalised by squalid living conditions. 33 Untitled, which ­depicts a defunct typewriter, speaks poetically to unfulfilled ­social contracts.

Also, according to the show’s accompanying text: “The UN ­Environment Programme has ­stated that Western countries ­produce about 50 million tons of digital waste every year.

In Europe, only 25% of this type of waste is ­collected and effectively recycled.

“Much of the rest is piled in ­containers and shipped to ­developing countries, supposedly to reduce the digital divide, to create jobs and to help people.”

This promise hasn’t been ­received. At least not according to the ­image Hugo has titled Abdulai Yahaya – Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010 (pictured above).

It depicts a crouching young man who has taken a break from burning and extracting copper out of the computer waste material.

Clad in grimy, dirt worn ­garments, he returns what could be an annoyed gaze, mixed with what looks like tears or sweat, at the privileged gallery audience.

The palette of this image keeps to the bleak themes of the whole show with cloudy skies, filled with hopelessness and smoke from fires in the dump site that its residents have chosen to aptly name Sodom and Gomorrah.

One thing is sure, though, these photographs shouldn’t be met with polite declarations of sympathy.

­Rather, they should be an ­awakening to the fact that the ­suffering of Hugo’s Ghanaian ­subjects is intimately connected to the privileges of the wine-sipping gallery visitors who will marvel at them.

» Permanent Error is on at the Brodie/Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, Joburg until 15 December 2010. The ­gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday 10am to 1pm

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