Borders at Johannesburg Art Gallery

Johannesburg Art Gallery is hosting a small-scale version of the 8th Bamako Encounters African Photographic Biennial, which took place in Mali the end of 2009. Curated by Michket Krifa and Laura Serani, the theme of the 2009 Biennial was Borders and the show tackled the consequence that borders on the African continent continue to carry. “In Africa,” the curators say, “more than anywhere else, borders are a major issue, whether they are artificial lines drawn up by men or natural barriers, they generally delineate spaces of political sovereignty.”

Goodman Gallery represented artists Kader Attia, Jodi Bieber and mounir fatmi all took part in the biennial in Mali and have work on the show at JAG. Attia’s series Square Rocks (2009) explore borders as a hindrance to a better life; rendering hope nothing more than unattainable chimera. Attia photographed the youths of Bab El-oued, a poor district in the Algiers where he spent his summer vacations growing up. This is where young people, Attia explains, go to “loiter, smoke cigarettes, fish, some engage in prostitution… but mainly, they spend hours sitting on those blocks, as though hypnotised, watching the comings and goings of the ships that link Algeria and Europe… This beach is the very last border separating them from that continent, and above all from their dreams of a better life.”

In Jodi Bieber’s Going Home series (2001) – which won the European Union prize for documentary photography – crossing borders is not merely a dream, but a necessity and, ultimately a fruitless and painful ordeal. Bieber documented the period after devastating floods in Mozambique in 2000. “At the same time in South Africa,” she explains, “Operation Crackdown was in progress. This was an ongoing initiative by the police services to eliminate the high level of crime in our country and part of their duties was to detain illegal immigrants… in Lindela a repatriation centre in Krugersdorp. From there illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries would board a train which would take them back to their country of origin.”

Fatmi’s video installation History of History confronts what happens to a political luminary when he is removed from the moment in history that established his legacy. David Hilliard – Chief of Staff for the Black Panther Party in the 1960s – is the focus of the video, which reveals what a man who contested a prevailing power system, rose up against racial and economic disparity becomes almost half a century later.

Borders runs at Johannesburg Art Gallery until 26 September 2010.