Kin by Pieter Hugo
Life in present day South Africa is inextricably linked to the history of Apartheid and centuries of institutionalized segregation and inequality born from colonial rule. Six years ago, when his wife became pregnant with their first child, photographer Pieter Hugo was prompted to seriously consider the nature of his relationship to his birthplace. “How,” Hugo asks, “does one live in this society? 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?” After years of making work throughout Africa, these questions motivated Hugo to photograph the people and landscape of his own community. Kin reflects his meditation on the notion of “home” and “family,” concepts that when viewed through the artist’s lens, prove to be as nuanced, contradictory and fractured as the nation itself.
The photographs in Kin are portraits, still lifes and landscapes made throughout South Africa, between 2006 and 2014. Hugo deftly intermingles the private and public – presenting portraits of his family and the people who raised them, alongside images of people and environs that speak to the diverse experiences of living in South Africa today. The effect is jarring, appropriate for a nation Hugo describes as “schizophrenic.” Titles describe subjects close to Hugo and his family, however others are simply identified by name.. Who are they? Friends? Neighbors? Drifters? Farmers? Miners? Famous South Africans? An underlying tension permeates these portraits, where the intimacy of the photograph feels at odds with the subject’s unclear relationship to the photographer.
Kin is full of stark contrasts with a convergence of personal and political – aerial views of a gated community and a township of government-subsidized housing, a lovely kitchen with a near cornucopia on the table alongside a home where a lone, tattered box of potatoes sits on the floor. A particularly striking sequence shows a young black man, bundled in many layers, photographed in front of the beach where he sleeps. The next page depicts a well-manicured, white family of four grinning widely from the comfort of their couch – the quintessential family portrait.
The book alternates between pages of three sizes – full-length horizontals, slightly smaller horizontals and roughly half-sized pages featuring vertical images. The format creates some intriguing juxtapositions, where vertical images can be recontextualized through the fragmentary view of the photograph that follows. My only frustration with the design of Kin is the way in which the titles are integrated. While I understand their importance to the images, the manner in which they are incorporated clutters the book’s flow and becomes cumbersome when trying to identify the titles corresponding to the pictures. At the end, a statement by Hugo and short story by Ben Okri – “The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us” – bring clarity and context to the work. Okri presents a metaphor for the thorny relationship between notions of them and us, and the mentality that justifies perpetuation of the division.
A project like Kin, exposes topics too broad and complex to be resolved. Hugo acknowledges this limitation, explaining, “[t]his work grapples with these dilemmas, but ultimately fails to provide any answers.” Through Kin, we unsteadily straddle the known and unknown, comfort and discomfort, encouragement and discouragement, satisfaction and dissatisfaction – fitting tensions for describing a society marked by flux and disparity.