South African photographer David Goldblatt (b. 1930) describes himself as “a self-appointed observer and critic into the society in which I was born,” in a conversation with Nadine Gordimer for publication of his 1973 monograph On the Mines. His family first arrived in South Africa around 1893, having fled from the persecution of Jews in Lithuania.
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The youngest of three sons, Goldblatt was 18 years old when the South African government instituted a policy of apartheid that lasted from 1948 to 1994. Apartheid grew out of racial segregation under Dutch colonial rule and took shape under the National Party, which came to power following the demise of the Nazi party in the aftermath of World War II. Apartheid enacted the systemic oppression of the majority of black citizens under white minority rule, curtailing human rights and forcing them to live in segregated homelands without basic infrastructure such as electricity, clean water, and sewage.
The same year apartheid began, Goldblatt picked up a camera and began to document the developments in South Africa, which continue, post-apartheid to this day. His body of work, which extends over six decades, reveals the social and political climate in a series of haunting works that invoke the specter of oppression in the traumatic stress of living under state-sanctioned terrorism.
Pace MacGill Gallery, New York, presents two bodies of work, The Transported of KwaNdebele: A South African Odyssey, 1983-1984 and Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime, 2008-2015, now on view through October 29, 2016. Drawn “to the quiet and commonplace, where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and imminent,” Goldblatt’s photographs are silent portraits of life in hell, capturing the harrowing reality of the everyday.
In The Transported of KwaNdebele: A South African Odyssey, 1983-1984, Goldblatt documents the daily commute made by workers who must travel 3.5-8 hours per day to and from their jobs in Pretoria. Anyone who has ever had to commute can empathize with the stress it creates; most of us, however, have the power to live and work where we choose and are not bound to the sacrifice that apartheid imposed. These images are rife with tension, exhaustion, and stress, invoking the fundamental cruelty of apartheid and how it worked to break a people down, mentally, physically, and psychologically.
In Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime, 2008-2015, Goldblatt brings us up to speed, showing us life in post-apartheid South Africa for those who gave been through the prison system. He observes, “My interest in ex-offenders arises from a wish to know who are the people who are doing the crimes and to get a sense of their life and how they came to crime. Could these people be my children? Could they be you? Or me?” In 2012, he expanded the project to include ex-offenders in England’s Black Country.
For those who have never been targeted by state-sanctioned violence, these questions may be easy to dismiss, for it’s difficult it imagine what it would be like to be seen as a criminal by happenstance of birth. This is why Goldblatt’s work is of great import; these are the problems we face today, everywhere around the globe. The voiceless go unheard and the invisible go unseen until we choose to look and recognize that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”