When I was a teen-ager, my family used to go to the Taos Pueblo each Christmas Eve. Some years, it was below zero, but so what. We braved the cold and wind, and marched along with countless other Taos gringos, to see the yearly celebration. Seriously dramatic, I assure you.
How so? The Pueblo is set at the base of Taos Mountain, and the event takes place just as the sun goes down, bathing the peak in deep shades of purple. As the sky darkens, they light bonfires, built as towers, that can reach 30 feet into the sky. The smoke begins to cloud your vision, which adds to the surreality.
Suddenly, you hear the chants of the Pueblo residents, who emerge, without notice, walking slowly in a chain. At the center sits an effigy of the Virgin Mary, stock still on one of those shoulder carriers that they must have used in Ancient Egypt. The chanting, the fires and the smoke are punctuated by rifle shots. Bang. Bang. Cracking across the evening sky. As a youngster, I’d always wonder what would happen if a bullet descended back into the crowd, but I’m sure it’s never happened.
Like I said, it’s dramatic. I went each year for a decade or so, then stopped cold. Suddenly, it seemed too cliché. Too Post-Colonial. Hey, look at the strange red people. Watch them dance. Like poking a monkey with a stick. Or so I thought.
Now, I’m beginning to wonder. On the heels of last week’s review of the Viviane Sassen book, I got to talking with my friend Melanie at photo-eye. I told her that my first impression was something like, “Are you kidding me?” Really, how many photographers need to point their camera at the poor brown people. We get it. Enough.
The essay eventually won me over, and of course the pictures are edgy and well done. But Melanie didn’t have the same disdain for the process, nor do many, so I began to wonder. Am I the only one with this bias? And furthermore, is the bias valid?
I ask, because, in Taos, you’re not from here unless you were born here. A lot of places are like that. So is Post-Modern theory, ironically. It was branded in any good student’s subconscious that what you have to say is inherently limited by your gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Rebutting the vision of many a wandering shutterbug, it imposed upon a generation of artists the notion that you ought to stick to what you know. (For example, if I ever met Chuck D, I probably wouldn’t smack his palm and exclaim, “Power to the people, my brother.” You dig?)
So now I’ve begun to wonder if it isn’t time to challenge that notion entirely. Maybe artists ought not to be limited to their continent, or class, or sexual orientation? Maybe photographers keep going to the Third World because of an insatiable human curiosity to learn about different things, and tell unfamiliar stories? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the pictures are distinctive, and, in some way, new?
And what of Africa? Maybe the fascination stems from the fact that it’s the homeland to all humans? And its wild creatures dominate our dreams and deep fears, despite the probable urbanity of our surroundings. (Yes, I did get scared by a tiger at the Denver zoo. The bullet-proof glass did little to quell the shivers creeping up my neck. Big, scary monster. Run, dammit, run.)
With that in mind, I thought it might be healthy to head back to Africa again this week. Now, Pieter Hugo was born in South Africa, so of course my argument is already weakened. He’s from there, so his opinion matters more, according to my original line of thinking. But let’s just judge the book and photos, and then see what we think. OK?
His new book, “This Must Be the Place,” also published by Prestel, is one of the best I’ve seen since I started this column. Given that I made you read all the above, I thought I’d cut to the chase. It’s amazing. If you like his work at all, this is one to buy. Why?
To begin with, unlike last week’s book, this volume needs no introduction. No backstory necessary. (If you’re looking for some on the “Parasomnia” book, photo-eye posted a more in-depth review.) In Hugo’s book, each set of pictures is titled by image, project, place and date. It’s not hard to piece things together, especially as all the images come in groups. It gives a nice bit of context, and allows the photographs to suck you in. (FYI, I continue to assert that if an artist does not include certain information, then they don’t care that we know it.)
The first set of portraits, from South Africa, establish straight away that Mr. Hugo, like the folks at the Taos Pueblo, has a flair for the dramatic. (Not news to anyone who saw that photo of a big Naked African guy wearing a Darth Vader mask.) They are shot close up against a neutral background, not unlike Thomas Ruff, but these reek of emotion. Intense stares, albino Africans, and a blind guy with silver eyes.
Then, a set of portraits of judges from Botswana, all decked out in the garb of the British realm. Next, we’re on to portraits of dead people, wrapped in burial shrouds. Also from South Africa. No, Mr. Hugo is not shying away from the legacy that brought lots of gun-toting white people to Africa’s shores.
On to boy scouts, shirtless taxi washers, and wild honey collectors from Ghana. All well-made, but they’re just place holders for what comes next. A chilling look at the “Vestiges of Genocide” from Rwanda. Lime-covered shrieking skeletons, and bones rotting in the dust. Brilliant.
The next photo, after that run, is of a pile of rotting tomatoes on the ground, from 2006. If you read last week, you know that I wondered what Ms. Sassen was on about with her version of rotting tomatoes on the ground. Now we know. It was a shout out. Pretty cool.
The book continues on longer than I can. So let’s condense. The “Nollywood” work, which drew so much praise and criticism a couple of years ago, shines in the context of this book. (And no, Vader is not included.) The guys hanging out with Baboons and Hyenas are fascinating. (From “The Hyena & Other Men”) For all the reasons I listed above. Primal fear and our insatiable thirst for visions of the “Other.” It doesn’t get more “Other” than people who pal around with Hyenas and Baboons, IMHO.
In the end, Mr. Hugo has the guts to expose his own world, along with the others. His relatives: naked and pregnant, topless after a breast reduction operation, and his little daughter, standing in the middle of the road, pushing a pink stroller, vulnerable to any car or bus that screams around the bend just behind her. (The last picture, of course.)
This book made me rethink my own experiences. It made me question bed-rock assumptions. It even made me re-write history a bit. (I saw a show of his last Fall at Yossi Milo, and thought the work boring. Perhaps I was impatient.) Unlike many of you, I was unaware that Mr. Hugo is a genuinely important artist, walking among us. There’s a lot we can learn from a great book. This is one of them.
Bottom Line: Fantastic. A keeper.
Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.
Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.