The blues in black and brown, could have easily been the title of Ranjith Kally’s current solo exhibition. But the show is titled, A Durban Perspective on South Africa 1946 – 1982: A Life Behind the Lens.
Kally’s work presents Durban’s share of the South African experience and also claims the city’s place in the country’s collective public memory.
The curatorial effort also flirts with an implied biography of the photographer’s eye.
In other words the viewer not only comes to see the subjects captured in the images, he/she becomes witness to the photographer’s active gaze.
Kally’s values and missions are made explicit in the show’s accompanying texts.
“Apartheid had to be opposed in every sense, and with my camera I found a place to express this solidarity of the downtrodden,” says the 85-year-old photographer of his assumed duty.
There are three strands to the show’s curatorial spread.
The first focuses on the African experience.
Kally tells this story through photographs of the late Chief Albert Luthuli, the first African to receive a Nobel peace prize.
These include the rare images of Nokukhanya Luthuli, the chief’s reticent wife. Kally presents the late laureate and president of the African National Congress as a husband and father in his domestic setting; as a leader addressing a meeting and as a martyr of the freedom struggle.
Thus reclaiming and placing the beloved and often mythologised leader in the realm of everyday people.
The second spread navigates the Indian experience in Durban.
It’s told through the lives of child labourers on the sugar plantations in the then Natal province.
At the time, Durban’s Indian community had been part of a long history of indentured labour.
They were brought over from the subcontinent to the New World.
Kally’s depiction of the wretched children doesn’t miss a scar as he reveals the inhumanity of their situation.
Through his Images of Miriam Makeba and Sonny Pillay the exhibition weaves an overlap in the lives and loves of the then oppressed black and Indian communities.
There are other more life-affirming images depicting the simple joys that defied the political context meant to make life hard to live.
The image, Man Fishing, depicts an unexpected non-racial experience during a sardine run on the beach.
It’s a lovely scene of young and old whites, Indians and blacks jolling and jostling joyously for fish to feast on.
It makes the point that when beauty happens, all prejudices fall away.
On the same day Kally took what could be the show’s loveliest gem, Boy Sardine Run.
The iconic image of a boy soaking wet with sea water.
He’s clad in shorts, a white linen shirt and a suit jacket.
The boy proudly carries his bag of fish.
Though Kally’s work reflects a blue period in our history, his black and white images also speak to the resilience of our joyous resolve.
» The exhibition runs until October 22 at Bailey Seippel Gallery at Arts on Main in Johannesburg. It then moves to Durban.