Photographer George Hallett in conversation with Bo-Kaap
(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a regional newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on 22 August 2015.)
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Around the table sits veteran Cape Town photographer George Hallett with protagonists from contemporary art collective The Burning Museum, talking about interpreting his photographic archive.
Hallett steers the conversation, giving space also for the collective’s younger voices to share their thoughts. Coffee and ideas are indulged.
The conversation’s centerpiece is Hallett’s photographic archive, some of it currently on the walls of Gallery Momo, a Johannesburg-found entity extended to Bo-Kaap this May.
Hallett’s exhibition, ‘Same Same but Different’, opened at the gallery on August 20. His photographs – mostly black-and-whites, with a few colour prints – are artifacts of his 50-year career of documenting peasants, anti-apartheid activists in exile and democratic South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela.
Gallery Momo called up The Burning Museum, comprising five young artists from Cape Town, to create new work drawing on Hallett’s archive. They were given access to use book and album covers as well as some photographic prints.
Hallett says he “didn’t interfere” much and the collective confirms it treated his work with “respect”.
The entrance hall of the expansive gallery’s tall white walls bears Hallett’s black-and-whites from his early photographic work in District Six and Bo-Kaap.
These images show a familiar yet erased narrative, much like the gentrified spaces where The Burning Museum locates its public artworks.
From the entrance’s 1960s moments, one moves through to the 1970s when Hallett lived in exile in Europe, documenting other dissenting voices forced to flee their apartheid-diseased homeland.
The exhibition then follows the trails of Hallett’s ventures in southern France, where he photographed peasants “with dignity”.
Also featured are multi-racial scenes from elsewhere: unheard of, unseen and deeply forbidden in South Africa at the time.
Enter democracy: a few snapshots of those promising days. Hallett and countless other South Africans fled exile en masse for a reinvented life back home.
“It’s been a tough process since I came back from exile. People said I was overrated. They had ‘laanie gedagtes’ (ideas of being a boss). I wasn’t going to be anyone’s slave,” says Hallett.
To that end, he walked away from local galleries while maintaining his independence. He has been digging into his archive to put together other collections for exhibitions worldwide.
A much larger retrospective of his work filled the walls of the South African National Gallery in the Company’s Garden last year.
Hallett says he is now working on a visual autobiography, in book form, that tells the story of his family and life.
“There’s a hell of a lot of work I still have to do. I am overwhelmed a little bit,” he says.
Two of the Burning Museum’s visual artists, Justin Davy and Tazneem Wentzel, appear appreciative of the chance to reinterpret an archive comprising a strong body of photographic protest pieces. The image confronted apartheid.
In one of Gallery Momo’s rooms, they have installed their archival interpretation, ‘Cover Version’.
The group decided to create a series of overblown album covers, merging Hallett’s images with their own.
Protest persists as Davy says ‘Cover Version’ is an extension of their efforts to “address historical gentrification”.
“There is a strong theme of exile and displacement in his (Hallett’s) work. We look at waves of gentrification throughout our history,” he says.
“That’s through the genocide of the Khoi, forced removals and the (present) gentrification in Woodstock (suburb).”
The Burning Museum and Hallett also share a parallel, as they aim for their work to remain accessible beyond the exclusive art gallery realm.
While Hallett’s prints are now sold for thousands of Rands, he has in the past taken his work into public spaces at his own expense.
“When I lived in exile in the south of France, there were little villages of peasants who worked on farms. I photographed them with dignity,” recalls Hallett.
“I had an exhibition of those photos in villages. The workers didn’t go to art galleries and had never seen themselves like that. I gave the pictures to them for free because they couldn’t afford it.”
The Burning Museum’s tactic has been to post work up in contested public spaces.
“We put work up in the street. It’s about burning preconceived ideas of how to memorialise and maybe take things out of a museum and put it out on the street,” says Davy.
“We are interrogating how museums memorialise history as remnants, as colonialism and apartheid.”
Wentzel, who studies museum and heritage at the University of the Western Cape, says working with Hallett’s and other archives is their way of “trying to make sense of our present situation”.
“Museums played an important role in the colonial process and we need to look at the museum’s role today,” she says.
Gallery Momo’s showcase of Hallett’s archive meanwhile intends among other things to be a “conversation” with the Bo-Kaap community.
The gallery’s owner Monna Mokoena says he wants to run an inclusive space.
“Most galleries turn their backs on communities and become exclusive. Galleries should be spaces for dialogue and not just commercial,” says Mokoena.
“We want to involve the local community which has been here for years. We want to bring children into the gallery and create workshops.
“Maybe in this area there are artists that can be touched.”
Mokoena says he opened a Cape Town gallery to showcase his artists here, but also because the city “can do with a new way of looking at things”.
The B-Kaap gallery’s director Igsaan Martin adds: “We want to shake up Cape Town”.
“We have been around for 13 years in Johannesburg. We are using this space as a platform for our established and up-and-coming artists,” says Martin.
“We want to do exciting things.”
‘Same Same but Different’ runs at Gallery Momo, located at 170 Buitengracht Street in Bo-Kaap, until September 26. Contact 021-424-5150.