David Goldblatt: Kith, Kin & Khaya

Kith, Kin & Khaya, a major exhibition of photographs by David Goldblatt, opened at the South African Jewish Museum, in Cape Town’s Company’s Garden, on 1 November 2010. The exhibit arrived in Cape Town from The Jewish Museum in New York City where it drew large audiences and received very enthusiastic reviews.

Described as a contemporary master and our country’s most distinguished photographer, Goldblatt, now 79, has for decades used the South African condition – its complexities, graces and obsessions – as material for his mesmerizing work. While the ‘struggle’ is Goldblatt’s ‘great theme’, his subject matter then, is the manifestation of struggle, and his subjects the engaging, if sometimes unwittingly and innocent, participants. The result is a showcase of South African studies from the 1950s to the 21st century.

Goldblatt’s skill is such that each image provides insight into the life and times – often the very soul – of his heterogeneous subjects. These range from exhausted migrant workers to a seemingly vulnerable Harry Oppenheimer; from careworn whites from the wrong side of the tracks to the well-groomed women of the Boksburg’s Women’s Zionist League; and from simple, devout families posing stiffly to a humble cleaner.

If Goldblatt’s pictures tell many stories, the details tell even more. White children are overseen by nannies, long-suffering but loving, while church members seated in a chilly hall, share a blanket across the racial divide. With his accomplished masterstroke, even inanimate objects such as concrete bed bunks or a curvilinear church facade, take on a life of their own, creating powerful compositions that give pause for thought.

The exhibition has been described by many as a ‘stirring experience’. For though outwardly simple, ‘focusing on the world of ordinary people and the minutiae of everyday life’, Goldblatt’s way ‘has always been to go deeper’. The photos appear to be stark and self-explanatory but what tales lie beneath! ‘I needed,’ said Goldblatt, ‘to grasp and probe’.

All works are black and white gelatin silver prints, and were taken between 1948 and
2009, In this age of inkjet printing, the exhibition is unusual in that it consists entirely of silver gelatin prints made on traditional photographic fibber base paper, processed in photographic chemistry.