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Jo'burg's photographic riches

Andrew Harding | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 19 November 2010

It should be a rather grand location, nestled in a park close to the city centre, below a steep hillside. But Johannesburg's main art gallery, JAG, fell victim, many years ago, to the urban decay that still clings to so much of the city's heart. Today even Johannesburg's own official website concedes that the gallery - housing one of the continent's biggest collections - is in a "menacing" neighbourhood.

It's a huge shame for an institution gearing up for its centenary. I went there last weekend with my children, picking our way across piles of rubble and rubbish in the car park, and the only other visitor we saw was a woman sleeping soundly on a bench inside.

It's well work the trek. The gallery is showing two photographic exhibitions. One - South African photography 1950 - 2010 - is a familiar tour through the frontlines and headlines of the country's well-documented struggle for freedom. Powerful stuff. But nowhere near as gripping as a much more subdued display in two adjoining rooms.

Ernest Cole's photo: Boy in School

Ernest Cole Boy in School courtesy of Hasselblad Foundation

If you, like me, hadn't heard of Ernest Cole, I'd urge you to track down a copy of his book, House of Bondage - no, not that sort - and read about his brave, messy, unflinching life.

In dozens of exquisitely composed photos, Cole manages to capture the banal, brutal reality of apartheid from an insider's perspective: A small crouching child, sweat streaming down his cheek, furiously concentrates on his schoolwork; a black housekeeper finds a rare moment of intimacy cuddling her Indian employer's baby; a disconcertingly calm gang of pickpockets surrounds their quarry on a city street.

JAG has other surprises too. No, there's nothing here to compare with any major international art gallery, but it's still a thrill to wander through a small, drab room and to stumble across a Dali sculpture, a Sisley, a Manet, a Van Gogh and then a small Picasso print.

The gallery staff run a small shop selling catalogues and postcards. They were extremely helpful but the gallery's security appeared to be laughable. No wonder they've had thefts.

There are some other very interesting photography exhibitions in Johannesburg right now, including this striking series of portraits of local criminals returning to the scenes of their crimes.


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