Spier Contemporary 2010 award winning documentary series.
Every day, a number of men and women sort through unwanted material that accumulates at urban outlets. Outside supermarkets and liquor stores, around factories in outlying industrial areas and in the refuse dumps on the outskirts of cities, informal recyclers, the so-called “trolley people”, load up their makeshift carts with wastepaper and cardboard. They push their cargo to recycling depots, where their collections are sorted and weighed and they are paid a small fee for their labour. From there, the material undergoes recycling processes and is transformed so that it can re-enter the formal economy, until it ends up once again on the refuse heaps of South Africa’s cities, and the process begins anew.
Although their main ambition is to survive, the “trolley people” have for many years been inadvertently helping to raise awareness about recycling possibilities. As such, they are accidental pioneers in the recycling trend in our country. Yet, the more proactive the public becomes about sustainable living, the less opportunity there will be for these informal recyclers to continue exchanging waste for cash to ensure their daily survival. These images were photographed using an antique 35mm panoramic camera. They offer a glimpse into the fragile existence and future of recyclers operating in Newtown, Johannesburg and have been selected from a larger body of work that focuses on informal recycling in South Africa.
Concrete is the culprit. As Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology, has pointed out, ‘Concrete is a new kind of rock which can be considered a characteristic deposit of the Anthropocene Epoch just as coal is of the Carboniferous Period’. Staggeringly, Zalasiewicz informs us that ‘we’ve made about 500 billion tonnes of it, which is enough for one kilo for every square meter of the earth’s surface, land, and sea’. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that we’re being crushed by concrete, the second most important consumable today – after water!
Ours is the Anthropocene Age – Man Made – an age which is designed to guarantee our extinction. It is this dark narrative which underpins Robertson’s photographs of ‘urban textures’. The concrete mixes we use are designed with an ever-shortening expiry date, which means buildings are erected and torn down at an alarming speed. The prognosis is dire. As Gaia Vince witheringly informs us, ‘one tonne of cement emits more than one tonne of carbon dioxide. And many of the buildings being thrown up over the past few decades are of such shoddy construction that they have to be demolished and replaced within twenty years, using more materials and emitting more carbon’.
One cannot look at Robertson’s photographs without also absorbing the toxicity of the urban environment we have created. To try and see beauty inside of this mess is understandable, but we must also acknowledge it as a beauty that has come at an enormous cost. Graffiti, or street art, or photographs which isolate and detail dysfunction and breakdown in our city streets, therefore, is not merely a surface narrative, but one which also plumbs the depths of our ethical depravity. For we are not merely dealing with an elemental distress – the impact of rain, sun, or, in the case of port cities, salty humidity – we are also dealing with a psycho-social and cultural distress.
Simply to focus on the beauty of Robertson’s photographs – a beauty aligned with abstraction – is to fail to see its darker context. And yet it is precisely this tendency to isolate the beautiful, free it from the greater mess that underwrites it, that we embark upon the slippery slope towards ethical ignominy. Brecht is correct, therefore, in declaring that art ‘must encourage the thrill of comprehension and train people in the pleasure of a changing reality’. The perception of an error, an accelerating damage, need not only result in despair. One can inhabit difficulty productively.
This, I think, explains Robertson’s suite of photographs – Urban Textures. While his photographs appear to deal with surfaces, it can also be argued that they are appealing to a deeper more searching consciousness. In his world-vision beauty and distress are not mutually exclusive. Rather, Robertson seeks to combine the beautiful and the ugly. More significantly, he shares Ernst Fischer’s insight that ‘Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it’.
In Robertson’s case, this ‘magic’ resides in the devilish detail, in the poetics of photographic composition, the interplay of geometry and its erasure. If what we get are elegantly composed fragments, these fragments, no less, form part of a greater unseen yet intuited whole. For while many, lured by the abstract beauty of Robertson’s photographs, might restrict themselves – because their inherited taste is restricted – to the appeal of abstraction as an aesthetic, we can also argue that these isolated and subtracted fragments of beauty speak to a need to address the greater problem of a societal – cultural, psychic, economic – breakdown.
If, as Fischer attests, ‘Art is the indispensable means for this merging of the individual with the whole. It reflects … infinite capacity for association, for sharing experiences and ideas’, this is because, against an exclusionary and elitist cult, which seeks to set art apart from the rest of life, art, nevertheless, need never lose sight of its primary goal – to connect us. Which is why Robertson’s ‘canvas’ is both natural and unnatural, beautiful, ugly – and magical.
Ashraf Jamal is a writer, editor and teacher at CPUT and a research associate at U.J.
Transition print series
A body of work developed over several years, culminating in an exhibition at the Res Gallery, Johannesburg in 2014.
“Robertson presents us with a lens into the unseen world – a liminal, in-between space that is at once undeveloped and developed – a space that is ‘becoming’. His images are narratives of that which is not immediately apparent but can be found just under the ‘skin’ of the perceived, physical world. Combining his love of photography with his passion for painting, the artist fuses these two art-forms into a series of sensitive and captivating artworks. Robertson’s final images are photographs that have been transformed beyond the reality they originally portray, through a synthesis of gestural brushstrokes, expressive smears and the capturing of panoramic African scenes.
Stories develop which fuse realistic narratives with mythical ones, reminiscent of the magical realism mode of writing, by African authors like Mia Couto from Mozambique, Ben Okri from Nigeria or Zakes Mda from South Africa. The photographic images, which form the basis for this series of artworks, were photographed by Robertson during recent travels through Africa including Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa”, by Leonard Shapiro.
Photographed during a wander through parts of Egypt in 2006 with an antique camera I didn’t fully understand.
Exhibited at Focus Contemporary, Cape Town 2006.
“I have always been fascinated by the magical aspect of traditional photography – the serendipity, after processing one’s film, of finding something in the image that was unintentional but welcome at the same time. After being introduced to a vintage Widelux panoramic camera, I became intrigued by two distinctive effects this camera produces: the first is selective focus, which throws some parts of the image into sharp focus and causes others to blur; the second is the unpredictable interaction between the movement of the camera and the movement of the subjects. These effects produce abstract images which are often difficult to explain technically and impossible to re-shoot with the same results. This camera satisfied my desire for a more abstract way of communicating photographically and kept alive the wonder of unexpected photographic results”.
An interpretation of life on the streets of Cape Town in the winter of 2008,
photographed from the interior of my car during persistent rainy outbursts.
Archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper. edition of 9
Image size : 52cm x 40cm. Paper size : 56cm x 44cm
Night photography playfully transformed from the mundane to the transcendental.
The term Kensho is commonly translated as enlightenment.
Also known to be a blissful realization of one’s ‘inner nature’ or ‘true self’.
This often spontaneous insight may occur as a result of seeing
an abstract shape or upon hearing or reading a significant phrase.
Photographed over several weeks in 2012, during travels in South East Asia
edition of 35
60cm x 60cm
Printed on 320gms Hahnemuhle German etching paper.
These photographs were created using a medium-format pinhole camera during a ten-day silent retreat a few hours out of Cape Town.Due to lengthy exposure times, even in normal sunlight, this type of photography often allows mysterious elements to manifest.
This magical aspect is for me the most attractive characteristic of pinhole photography.
Exhibited at Kalk Bay Modern gallery, Western Cape in 2010.