South African photographer Kitty’s puzzling characters

The subjects, who were mostly black and Indian, were photographed around Durban by Singarum Jeevaruthnam Moodley, aka Kitty (1922-1987).

SJ Moodley, "Boy in a wicker chair," 1978. Courtesy The Walther Collection.

A good photo tells a story – a great photo keeps you guessing. And that’s just what Kitty’s images do: they’re mysterious, and interpretation of them lies, mostly, in the viewer’s eyes. Or, as Diane Arbus puts it, “The thing that’s important to know is that you never know.”

Recently held at NIROXProjects in Maboneng, and curated by Steven C Dubin, Professor and Head of the Arts Administration Programme at Columbia University (NYC), ‘Developing Characters’ consisted of 80 photographs which were sourced from over 1400 negative slides produced by Kitty’s Studio in Pietermaritzburg between 1972 and 1984. The subjects, who were mostly black and Indian, were photographed by Singarum Jeevaruthnam Moodley, aka Kitty (1922-1987).

Moodley was a staunch anti-apartheid activist, and his business premises not only served as a photo studio, but also as a hub of anti-apartheid activity. His images also provide a view of black South Africans during the struggle that hasn’t been documented before.

Dubin says the value of the exhibition lies in its counter-narrative. “Not to minimise the struggle, but people also had day-to-day lives. The studio was a place to escape and imagine other lives – a different life below the radar, which was not just political. Kitty’s studio is the only place where tribal and contemporary culture merge and are portrayed.” He adds the studio was right on the line between the ANC and IFP, and KwaZulu-Natal was a “hotbed of violence” at the time – but there’s a stillness and sense of safety in the studio, which couldn’t be found outside its doors.

How Dubin acquired this archive of negatives was, as he terms it, “a wonderful accident.” Thirteen years ago, he visited South Africa, and fell in love with the place. “I loved the sense of urgency and transformation,” he adds.

Dubin has been visiting South Africa ever since. In 2011, he bought a stack of old photos from a shop in Cape Town. He showed it to a friend of his in Joburg, just before leaving to return to the US. She, in turn, told him that she had a collection of negatives that were sitting in her garage, and that she should “just give them to him”. It turned out she’d had these slides for about 15 years, and, according to her, they had been thrown out from a KwaZulu-Natal museum.

After the death of Moodley, the head curator of the museum asked Moodley’s son-in-law about selling the studio’s negatives. The museum had an interest in “Africana” and the curator felt that Moodley’s collection would be the right fit, as it depicted many Africans decked out in animal skins and beadwork. After much pestering, Moodley’s son-in-law gave in, and agreed to sell the negatives to the curator.

The curator quickly realized that obtaining Moodley’s photos was a big mistake. Although there were many images of people in traditional attire, there were also, curiously, photos of Zulus sporting elements of popular western culture; a hybrid of sunglasses, suits, and spears. She panicked, as she’d paid quite a lot of money for the collection, and she decided to sort the photos into two piles: one ‘Zulu’; the rest tossed out.

“She obviously didn’t do a good job, because I’ve got some of the Zulu stuff. More importantly, I’ve got the images where people are combining contemporary and traditional culture, or images where the same person is Zulu in one photo, and modern in the other. If you were to go to that that museum today and look at what they’ve got, you’d have the mistaken notion that between 1972 and 1984, all the Zulus in Natal were walking around in traditional attire – which is not true, ” says Dubin. He adds that the curator is still, to this day, embarrassed about what she did. “She really laments it – she was young. But she’s really happy that I have them.”

The people in Moodley’s photos seem real and close – a stark contrast to the stoic and detached subjects on colonial-era postcards that were displayed in a vitrine. A heading read: “12 delightful snapshots of African native life”, with photos of bare-breasted, expressionless black women, effectively reduced to tribalised objects. Dubin decided to display these postcards as there are some visual parallels to Moodley’s images, especially when it comes to props: for example, women holding unopened umbrellas make numerous appearances in his shots – as they do in the postcards. It’s interesting to note that, according to an exhibition held at IZIKO Slave Lodge in Cape Town (Siliva Zulu, 2012), the umbrella was a sought after item in Zululand during colonial times.

The vitrine also displayed Zulu beadwork, which Dubin says, gave important context, and was not intended to provide an ethnographic frame of reference. Beadwork appears in Moodley’s photos, where the sitters are wearing traditional attire. In fact, the beads offer some clues as to what the intentions of the – mostly enigmatic – sitters were. In Zulu culture, beadwork is loaded with meaning. In one of Moodley’s images, a man wears a beadwork tie, the pattern’s meaning loosely translated to “talk loudly what you want”. In another, a couple is depicted, with a sombre-faced woman in traditional clothing. Her beads mean “a heart that is not happy” and “forgive”, while the man wears a western jacket and collared shirt.

‘Developing Characters’ gave rise to many difficult questions, many of which have equally difficult answers. In a panel discussion held just after the opening, many views were heated. According to Dubin, one black woman felt “very anxious and ambivalent” when viewing the images, while a male member of the audience was “tired of seeing bare-breasted women, the objectification of the black body”. It also can’t be denied that there is a gender gap in Moodley’s photos: most of the women are not as comfortable with the camera as the men, and they are more docile. For me, the most striking image is that of a Zulu woman wearing traditional Zulu female attire in one frame, but in the next she’s in Zulu male attire. This would’ve been extremely transgressive, yet her motives – and her identity – remain unknown.

The most pertinent question that rises is whether or not it’s ethical to display private photos of people who can’t be traced – and there is definitely an element of voyeurism, however unintentional.

A young Indian Elvis, his white pointy shoes laden with swag; a black man’s peace sign bling hangs around his neck, his hands propped self-assured on his hips; a middle-aged black woman’s scars peek out beneath a delicate blouse, her eyes have seen things they shouldn’t have; the only white family, clearly middle-class and comfortable with themselves, an anomaly in the exhibition. These photos were essentially keepsakes, meant for private viewing and dissemination. But they were hung on a gallery’s walls.

Dubin has consulted many lawyers, both in South Africa and the US. He tells me that copyright rests with each individual sitter, not Moodley’s family. So, potentially, someone could sue him. He’s also very careful about what can and can’t be displayed on the Internet. “It’s a private decision for someone to view an image in a gallery. I’m trying to keep it as respectful as possible … the woman who gave me the photos specifically asked me not to do anything that would embarrass or humiliate the sitters – that’s the last thing I would do. Some people do feel that it is a violation, and I understand that concern,” he says. “It is unsettling, but the alternative would’ve been for me to have kept these images in the box that I found them in.”

Dubin says, despite its controversial nature, the response to the exhibition was largely positive. “Some people were resistant because I’m from the outside, but I’ve also been told that I’ve done something which no-one here has thought to do.” He also tells me that the phone rang off the hook with people contacting him. “I received an sms which read: ‘Thank you so much. Our wedding pictures were taken by Kitty in ’72. So much of our history hasn’t been told, and we really haven’t had an opportunity to grapple with it – until now’.”

He tells me this is the most exciting and engaging project he’s ever done. “I’ve looked at these people every single day for the past two years – I don’t tire of looking at them.” The main appeal of the exhibition lies in its controversy: the fact that we, for the most part, don’t know the intentions of the sitters – and possibly never will. There are hints, clues, and just plain speculation, but, as Dubin says, “it’s a mysterious puzzle that we’ll never unravel.”

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