When we think of South Africa we tend to think in stereotypes – whites are rich, blacks are poor. But things have changed. Many farmers and working people fell into poverty after the land was redistributed, quite rightly, in favour of the black majority.
Katharine Cooper, who herself came from the South African white working class, returned to her country of origin and to Zimbabwe to document rural families and their children. But, to be honest, from what I had read, I expected starker images. True, some children in Cooper’s pictures, with their bare feet, sun-burnt skin and messy hair, look a little feral, but no more than children in the 1950s in Europe who really did look poor and indeed hungry.
Coopers images have a stillness and matter-of-factness, the children look sullen, there are no smiles, perhaps none were invited by the photographer. In contrast, a pretty young girl, as well a young man with the looks to grace a French luxury fashion advert, occur in different photographs and seem to have been chosen for their, shall we say, photogenic qualities. Cooper has won prizes for her photography but the selection shown here, though of great interest and relevance, to my mind, lacks drama and any real artistic impact.
But it seems not everything has changed in South Africa, not even among the white disenfranchised – in one photograph four white, barefoot siblings stand on a rock. The fifth, a tiny white, straw-blond baby, is strapped to the back of a stout black woman – a baby-sitting neighbour, a nurse, a maid? Definitely not one of the family. Astrid Burchardt 30th July 2019
Katharine Cooper A Journey to the Homeland continues at Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 13th October