Extraordinary lives: Portraits from a divided land

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About the exhibition

The exhibition will run from Saturday 23 March 2013 at the District Six Museum.

Sophia Klaase first used a camera as a participant in a photography project organised by Rick Rohde in 1999 as part of a long-term study into the socio-economic and environmental history of Paulshoek, a remote village in the communal area of Leliefontein, Namaqualand. Sofia’s photos stood out for their freshness, sensitivity, composition and candid portrayal of village life. Known to most of the community by her childhood name of ‘Vytjie’, Sophia Klaaste was only sixteen years old, and eagerly exploring the limited outlets for her feral imagination and vivacious nature.

Klaase has been making photographs ever since, apart from a hiatus of two years when she left Paulshoek in her late teens. Today, her collection of photographs consists of more than 1500 images. They record thirteen years of village life from the perspective of a young woman growing up in the ‘new’ South Africa, documenting family, friends, village events - funerals, dances, birthday parties, the Debutantes’ Ball - as well as the daily chores of baking bread, collecting firewood, milking goats, or self-portraits that provide a poignant record of Sofia’s own passage into adulthood. Her images are often constructed tableau, posed and acted out as if the camera provided a stage for impromptu fantasies and playful inventions. They refer indirectly to the moderating influence of the church at one extreme, and to the sporadic eruption of violence fuelled by alcohol, at the other. It is evident that drugs and gang culture have found resonance with the youth of Paulshoek, and although HIV/AIDS has affected individuals in the village, it is rarely spoken of openly.

This exhibition teases apart just what it means to be a young woman in a social landscape that is common to millions of South Africa’s rural poor.  Klaaste’s photographs are not ‘simple representations’, rather they form a powerful and remarkable archive of meanings which are embedded in palpable social, political and economic frames, connecting memories, histories and language. It is striking that the vision of a young ‘coloured’ South African woman, dislocated from formal sources of the visual literacy that frequently drives photographic experimentation, responds astutely to trajectories in the photographic representation of South African bodies. Klaaste has had neither formal training nor exposure to legacies and knowledge about photography. Since she has neither formals skills nor information, it is remarkable that her photographs convey many of the conceptual and aesthetic concerns of a recent generation of ‘black’ women photographers. 

The exhibition comprises 200 images from Sophia’s collection. They were made with simple disposable cameras, instamatics and latterly, digital cameras. One hundred and twenty of these images form a frieze of ‘snap-shot’ sized prints - the same format in which they were originally intended to be viewed by Klaase and her subjects. These are arranged in a temporal sequence that allows the viewer to follow the lives of Klaase’s sister, mother friends, neighbours and herself since 1999. A further forty photographs are enlarged and hung in thematic groups. Her black and white images are juxtaposed with those of her foster mother’s family album made in Paulshoek during the late 1930s. This comparison reveals striking similarities in the social and cultural milieu of village life over the last 80 years. It is also a comment on the global influences of media and youth culture that have penetrated this remote communal settlement.

Despite the hardship of the landscape and of daily life in Paulshoek, these photographs capture moments that contradict the idea of victimhood. In them, we see evidence of celebration, as well as a certain kind of defiant performance.  Klaaste’s subjects are unapologetic about who they are, often confronting the lens with a sense of purpose that challenges representations of who and what they are supposed to be.

The village of Paulshoek

Namaqualand is generally thought of as a peripheral or marginal area in South African, with a very small, highly scattered rural population depending upon a few towns and mining centres for services and administrative facilities. Sophia Klaase’s home village of Paulshoek in Namaqualand’s communal area of Leliefontein originated as an outpost for livestock herders in the early 20th century and now consists of about one hundred households. It is reached by way of a rough gravel road, 52 kilometres from Garies the closest town.

Paulshoek sits on the isolated eastern edge of the Kamiesberg massif, adjacent to the vast commercial sheep farms of Bushmanland and the nuclear waste dump of Vaalputs. Because of its history within a marginalised ‘Coloured Reserve’, the village seems stranded in the landscape and in time. Even today, in the context of increasing migration, tourism and infrastructural changes, substantial socio-economic transformation seems a distant dream. Some changes have taken place since 1994: housing has been upgraded, electricity and running water have come to all households and education, health and social services have improved incrementally. But life in Paulshoek has altered marginally if at all in many other respects. Unemployment remains extremely high at over 75%, and those who find work often receive very low wages. In common with many of South Africa’s communal areas, State welfare in the form of social grants is the main source of income. Illness due to limited health services, poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic are ever-present realities among the young and the old. In spite of the isolation and lack of opportunities, the residents of Paulshoek manage to create a sense of the extraordinary as portrayed in Sophia Klaase’s visual archive of village life.

For more information about the exhibition, please contact Siona O’Connell Tel: 021 480 7153.


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