Palestine & SAfrica: Travails of Invasion Find Focus in Two Photo Series at Biennale

The two image-makers hail from different continents and are distinctive in styles, yet their photographic series at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale shares a lot of similarity. Palestinian Rula Halawani and South African Santu Mofokeng take the visitor through a journey down a recent past, detailing struggles of their country’s people.

Hung next to each other at the sea-facing Aspinwall House venue of the art festival, Rula and Santu capture the pathos of their native land at a time of crisis it faced no long ago in its gravest form. Rula presents a series of untitled photographs that focus on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, while Santu’s images portray his township life and the struggle against apartheid.

Jerusalem-based Rula’s ‘For My Father’ revisits several places in Palestine that shaped her childhood memories. These include rolling hills, seashore and residential neighbourhoods. Anita Dube, curator of the 108-day biennale concluding this week, notes that Rula’s series is in remembrance of her late father. “Through her photographs, the artist expresses her disbelief and sadness at the disappearance of settings that were integral to her family experiences,” she says.

Rula captures places from her childhood memories that are unfamiliar to her now. For, the places have been occupied by strangers. Her image-making is characterised by an experimental approach to documentation, such as through the use of negatives and filters.” Anita explains, “Rula’s work makes the audience look at the work and think of the whole country and its neighbouring countries, not just to think of a certain village or city.”

The series speaks of not only the changes in the landscape, but also in its accessibility. Many of the photos essay how Palestinians can’t reach these areas because of the closure on Gaza and the wall in the West Bank.

Johannesburg-based Santu, on the other hand, documents interpersonal relationships in his series titled ‘Townships’. Anita says, “These photographs portray intimate interactions within the communities residing in the black township in South Africa at the height of apartheid (in the last century).”

The series tells the view how under apartheid disallowed black South Africans to live in cities; instead pushed them to quarantined townships created for them far away on the outskirts. All of the jobs, blue-collar or domestic, being in the cities, it would require the native people to commute two hours on trains and buses one way. ‘Train Church’ documents that journey, in which commuter trains were packed and dangerous, especially on payday.

These rides became the place for the community to come together. Worship services often broke out spontaneously, with bells, singing and preaching.

Santu started documenting life under Apartheid in 1985 when he joined Afrapix, an influential photographers’ collective which fought the racial discrimination that prevailed from 1948 to the early 1990s. His early works were conceived when he was a member of Afrapix, the influential anti-apartheid documentary photography collective that championed the ‘resistance arts’ movement and called for photographers to channel their work into activism.


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