Lovers of the work of Mali’s much-honored photographers Seydou Keïta (1921–2001) and Malik Sidibé (1935-2016) may be in for a shock upon entering this show, titled “Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa.” Could it be that what seemed the incomparable visual incisiveness of two great artists was in fact deeply related, on a structural level, to a much more pervasive style of African portraiture? Here, from a studio in the town of Pietermaritzburg some six thousand miles away from Bamako, are formally and thematically similar black-and-white images. Posed full-length against a fabric backdrop and wearing wonderfully stylish garb, whether Western or indigenous, the subjects—individuals, pairs, and groups—meet our gaze with a sure sense of self, even when holding props and engaged in obvious role-playing.
Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley (of Indian extraction, like many commercial photographers in the region), ran his storefront studio from 1972 to 1984, catering to nonwhite South Africans who needed passbook identity photos but also desired to make visual statements about their personal identity apart from the racial categories imposed by their government. Complexities multiply as the subjects conform to or deliberately break from local conventions of self-presentation, dress in ways that reflect the transition from rural to urban living, or switch from indigenous costumes to contemporary urban attire between consecutive shots. Columbia professor Steven C. Dubin (a frequent A.i.A. contributor) selected the roughly forty images on view (supplemented with postcards and traditional African accessories) from some 1,400 negatives that were discarded by a Durban museum after Moodley’s death in 1987, rescued from the trash by an intern, and stored in a garage for more than fifteen years.—Richard Vine
Pictured: S.J. Moodley: Boy in a wicker chair, 1978. Courtesy The Walther Collection.