Art: Give my regards to 'Wonderland'

2008-11-28 00:00

“I am not afraid.” It’s a beautiful phrase that pops up defiantly and sporadically all over global pop culture, from skate to rock, from fashion to hip hop. It’s invariably an expression of outsiderism and, precisely because it’s not the kind of phrase that the mainstream consumer media are likely to appropriate, it’s usually an authentic, emotionally stirring sentiment.

It’s a phrase that also appears on the back cover of the catalogue for the exhibition for photographic artist Lolo Veleko’s exhibition “Wonderland”, which she produced as Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year and which opened at the Durban Art Gallery on Thursday night. And truly, Lolo Veleko is not afraid. “Wonderland” constitutes a gloriously open-ended paean to the bravery of being defiantly one’s self.

Graffiti, clouds, incidental landscapes of the heart: “Wonderland”, suggests Veleko, both is and isn’t a place. And at the shimmering centre of Veleko’s fluid, technicoloured world are a series of portraits of young South Africans from Cape Town, Durban and Jozi, all radiating an idiosyncratic style that could come from nowhere but the periphery of contemporary South Africa.

These beautifully dressed young people might look like hip young things in the context of the fashion photograph. But think for a second about the possible home lives of these stylish dressers. South Africa is a place of great freedom, but it’s also a place of great repression and a profound conservatism.

Then there is the fact that clothing has always played a special role in South Africa, particularly for the country’s working class. Given the temporary nature of material possessions for working class South Africans, both under the forced evictions of apartheid and the forced evictions of so many in 21st century liberated South Africa, the shoes you wear, the shirt you put on your back — these become prime expressions of identity for many. Veleko’s portraits exist in the face of this acquisitive culture. The coolest kids at Veleko’s party are always wearing the weirdest clothes. This is not mall culture, but the culture of the self reflected through a world that too often exists in opposition to it. And the result is spirited and heart-warmingly beautiful.

I have heard one or two criticisms that Veleko’s work is too European. And, in truth, her work does fit into the same loose genre as that produced by American and particularly European cutting edge culture mags such as Trace and Dazed&Confused. In these magazines, fashion is often presented as documentary, and more to the point, often is documentary. But the style is one that was heavily influenced by African street photography, and if anything, Veleko is only reappropriating a tradition that has its roots in the streets of the continent. And, unlike the culture mags, she is not concerned with the culture of cool.

Veleko is aware of the charges levelled at her. A stand-out work in the exhibition features words in a digital scrawl layered over a photographic image. These words include “the art sweety of the moment”. But perhaps when you’re capable of finding such a wonderful “Wonderland” in contemporary South Africa, where so many see dark skies, such insults hardly matter.

• ‘Wonderland’ runs until January 18.

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