Pieter Hugo’s “1994”: Children And The Ghosts Of National Trauma

From the New Yorker article by Philip Gefter:

The white South African photographer Pieter Hugo has spent a decade and a half photographing Africa’s most marginalized communities: the elderly and the blind, people with aids, albinos who are considered outcasts because of the colorlessness of their skin. In his famous 2007 series, “The Hyena and Other Men,” he photographed Nigerian men with hyenas they had captured and trained to entertain people on the street. He has photographed Ghanaian laborers who cover themselves in banana leaves and garbage bags to collect honey from beehives in the jungle, diamond miners in an isolated town along the Zimbabwe border, and teen-age workers at an oversized dumpsite for obsolete electronics on the outskirts of Accra. Together, Hugo’s series compose a pointed examination of indigenous modes of survival on the African continent in the twenty-first century.

“Portrait #12, Rwanda,” 2015.Pieter Hugo, Portrait #12, Rwanda, 2015 Pieter Hugo/Yossi Milo Gallery

The title of Hugo’s latest series, “1994,” refers to the year of the Rwandan genocide, when members of the Hutu majority killed nearly a million Tutsi in a span of a hundred days; it was the same year that apartheid ended in South Africa.

Hugo’s catalogue of portraits, nearly twenty series in all, could fall under the rubric “concerned photography,” the term Cornell Capa coined to describe photojournalism with a social conscience. Yet, equally, his choices of subject divulge a fascination with novelty, oddities, and aesthetic extremes. His approach has, at times, led critics to call Hugo exploitative, an accusation that he rejects. “There’s an element of condescension in it, the notion that the people I photograph are somehow not capable of making their minds up about being photographed,” he told the Guardian in 2008, noting that his critics have consistently been white liberal Europeans.

The title of Hugo’s latest series, “1994,” which is currently on view at Yossi Milo Gallery, refers to the year of the Rwandan genocide, when members of the Hutu majority killed nearly a million Tutsi in a span of a hundred days; it was the same year that apartheid ended in South Africa. South African children born after the end of apartheid were called the Born Frees; in Rwanda, children conceived through rape during the genocide were known as les enfants mauvais souvenirs—the children of bad memories. For this series, shot in the past few years, Hugo made portraits of children of a new generation in villages around Rwanda and South Africa, posing each one in a bucolic setting, where the purity of nature and the innocence of youth evoke a kind of children’s idyll. While the children represent hope and equality, in contrast to the weighted history of atrocities and racial oppression, their gazes are steady and sober, as if they have not entirely escaped their nations’ pasts.

“Portrait #9, Rwanda,” 2015.Pieter Hugo, Portrait #9, Rwanda, 2015 Pieter Hugo/Yossi Milo Gallery

I have a deep suspicion of photography, to the point where I do sometimes think it cannot accurately portray anything, really. I particularly distrust portrait photography. I mean, do you honestly think a portrait can tell you anything about the subject? And, even if it did, would you trust what it had to say?

“1994” is by far the most stylized body of work in Hugo’s œuvre. The formal precision in these pictures can be eye-popping, and the compositional symmetry and the positioning of the figures in arcadian settings evoke Mannerist, and, at other times, Pre-Raphaelite qualities. Many of the children in these portraits wear oversized adult clothing that Hugo provided—an elegant silk wedding gown, a Laura Ashley-style country frock, a glamorous sequined cocktail dress. He collaborated with the children on their poses, which are, by turns, naïvely glamorous and innocent. A young girl in a lovely pink dress sits in the clear water of a creek, her legs extended amid the floating fabric under the transparent surface. Her expression borders on the seductive, as if she might be trying out an adult idea. Hugo posed her in this brook with a memory of his own in mind: seeing pictures of hundreds of bloody bodies thrown on this very spot during the Rwandan genocide. No trace of that now.

“Portrait #44, South Africa,” 2016.Pieter Hugo, Portrait #44, South Africa, 2015 Pieter Hugo/Yossi Milo Gallery

“I have a deep suspicion of photography, to the point where I do sometimes think it cannot accurately portray anything, really,” Hugo told the Guardian some years ago. “I particularly distrust portrait photography. I mean, do you honestly think a portrait can tell you anything about the subject? And, even if it did, would you trust what it had to say?” Perhaps it’s self-protection that drives him to question the nature of his medium. Or perhaps he balances doubts about his enterprise with an inexorable drive to prove himself wrong. In “1994,” his portraits may not reveal so much about who each child is, but they accomplish something else: a metaphorical evocation of time’s slow erasure of the past.

Pieter Hugo/Yossi Milo Gallery

A collection of Pieter Hugo’s new series “1994” is on sale now.

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