Certain topics bristle with so many layers of complexity and multiple readings that they tangle the average tongue. Identity is one; what it is to be a woman another.
Both are central to [In]appropriate, the latest photographic show at Cape Town’s PH Centre, which brings together works by 14 local female photographers.
The catalogue’s foreword bravely tries to contextualise the photographers’ responses to "cultural norms in SA", a nation that "teaches its daughters to accept misogyny as normal".
There is reference to the scourge of violence against women, patriarchal mandates and "interrogating normative conventions leading to toxic masculinity and the entrenchment of attitudes of what is considered acceptable and safe behaviour for women".
Thanks to the platitudes and double-speak bandied around during Women’s Month, these truisms can lose emotive power. However, many of the photographs hit home like a swift kick to the shin.
In Nicky Newman’s Hillbrow Brothel, shot more than 20 years ago, the colours are peculiarly worn and chilled. The lower torso of a woman dangles legs akimbo from a window, crotch clad in nylon, spiky high heels waving in the air. A sign above reads "Royal". Made as a three-dimensional ad for a brothel, it has the immediacy of a crime scene.
Newman’s frank explanation for the image also cuts like a knife: she is expected to laugh – it’s a joke after all, right? "This image spoke to me of the objectification and commodification of women. A thing to buy. A thing to f**k. A thing to throw away."
Her catalogue notes read: "I was extremely disturbed … because of how it looked, like she was being thrown out of the window. So stark and crude, her dismembered legs all skew … so dishonouring."
There are more conceptual images too, such as Durban-born photographer Saaiqa’s A Collared Woman: Self-portrait. In this black-and-white collage, the woman’s body is dangling, bound and semi-naked, head clad in glistening beads. But it is not meant to be read as vulnerable; more as an owning of "my hypersexuality and gender identity".
Saaiqa uses masquerade to "exercise power over the male gaze" — but she cannot control how the image will be seen. "Womxn are the ultimate threat to male supremacy, and simultaneously, patriarchy’s favourite oppressed object rendered helpless," she writes.
There are old favourites on the show: Babalwa and Claire, from Jodi Bieber’s series Real Beauty, fantastically proud in their underwear.
Tracey Derrick shows two special images: her self-portrait following recovery from breast cancer and the revealing image of 21-year-old Evelyn, in prison for murder.
The earliest image, from 1988, depicts a bar entrance at Joburg’s Grand Central Hotel. A sign above the door states baldly, 'No Women Allowed'
There is just one image of a male, on a bed, legs splayed, arms crossed defensively across his chest. It is from the series Spaces by Nombuso Bhogolo, whose images of men "flip the script around representation of females in media as the receptacle of male pleasure". It’s shot in a crowded accommodation in Hillbrow.
PH Centre director Simone Tredoux says the decision to offer women photographers an exclusive platform for the show was made "considering the ongoing and escalated violence against women in 2017".
The earliest image, from 1988, depicts a bar entrance at Joburg’s Grand Central Hotel. A sign above the door states baldly, "No Women Allowed".
Tredoux says: "I hope [the wide time frame] poses its own question: ‘Why do we still need these discussions in 2017?’".
There is room for humour. In Elizabeth Nkoana’s picture, a young woman in a beaded skirt irons her partner’s branded boxers. Her pictures allow the viewer to "derive their own story". There are few who will not relate to at least some of the images. And with luck, find words to communicate their unease, anger or amusement.
[In]appropriate is on at the PH Centre in Gardens, Cape Town, until October 6.