Pictures You Never Forget
Pieter Hugo at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg

Pictures of outsiders made Pieter Hugo famous. At the beginning of his career, the South African photographer portrayed showmen who moved through Nigeria with hyenas.  His photos give the men and their awe-inspiring animals an incredible, almost sculptural presence. The portraits of actors from Nollywood films, with which the artist, born in 1976, is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, look just as surreal. Dressed up as the devil, zombies, or heavily armed gangsters, the actors from the Nigerian dream factory pose in situations from everyday life. Then Hugo turns to the real horror: He photographed boys on a giant garbage dump in Ghana demolishing electronic scrap to get at the metals inside. Between blazing flames and dark smoke his protagonists stand proudly in post-apocalyptic landscapes. He also photographs in places of unimaginable horror. In 2004, ten years after the genocide in Rwanda, Hugo documented its traces: landscapes with mass graves, ossuaries, churches whose floors are still covered by the bones and clothes of victims. All of his pictures dispense with dramatic intensification, burning themselves into the viewer’s memory.

By contrast, the photos at the beginning of his first comprehensive show in Germany are almost idyllic. Hanging at the entrance to the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg is a photograph from 1994, one of Hugo’s recent series. It shows two dark-skinned boys in the middle of a field of white flowers. The older boy holds the younger one in his arms as though he wants to present him to spectators. Here the artist is quoting an iconic photo from the anti-apartheid struggle that shows Hector Peterson dying in the arms of a fellow student. The 13-year-old was one of the first victims of the Soweto uprising of 1976. Hugo’s idyll is deceptive. For 1994, the artist also returns to Rwanda, where he made additional portraits of children in seemingly pristine nature.

But this impression is also deceiving. "The landscape in Rwanda is incredibly charged,” explains the photographer. “Unlike during the Nazi period, when the genocide was carried out in death camps, the genocide in Rwanda too place everywhere. On every banana plantation, in every brook, on every bank. This gives rise to a psychological ambiguity: The idyllic-looking landscape is also a battlefield. You get the impression that you merely have to scratch the surface to find a corpse.” All of the kids that Hugo portrays were born after 1994 – after the end of apartheid in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda. Like all the people in his photography, they look right at the camera – dreamily, pensively, defiantly. Although they didn’t experience the horrors of the past themselves, they live in their shadow.

Like Kemang Wa Lehulere, the Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” 2017, Hugo belongs to a younger generation of South African artists who are taking new paths as they explore collective and private history. In photography, this means saying farewell to the classical documentary approaches that prevailed during the apartheid era. “Photographers usually sat within a liberal camp and used their skills to articulate the political reality – anything less was thought frivolous,” says Hugo. Following the end of white rule, the time of clear fronts was over. "Now we're in a completely different era, a different place. The complexities have become far more nuanced." This also concerns the question of his own identity: "My homeland is Africa, but I'm white," he says. "I feel African, whatever that means, but if you ask anyone in South Africa if I'm African, they will almost certainly say no. I don't fit into the social topography of my country.”
Hugo’s current series Kin also addresses these issues. He calls it “an engagement with the failure of the South African colonial experiment and my sense of being ‘colonial driftwood.’ South Africa is such a fractured, schizophrenic, wounded, and problematic place… How does one take responsibility for history, and to what extent should one try? How do you raise a family in such a conflicted society?” In Kin, we do not only encounter Hugo’s heavily pregnant wife and the photographer himself, who poses naked with his newborn daughter. His family also includes friends, former domestic staff, homeless people, and South Africa’s first homosexual couple to be married in a traditional ceremony. These very intimate and striking images deal with themes such as home, intimacy, belonging – and not least of all a feeling of hope.

Pieter Hugo: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg
Until 7/23/2017

Pieter Hugo is also represented in the exhibition Good Hope. South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600, which is on view at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam until May 21.