• Portrait 3. Rwanda, 2014. Picture: Peter Hugo

  • Portrait 20. South Africa, 2016. Picture: Peter Hugo

  • Portrait 9. Rwanda 2015. Picture: Peter Hugo

  • Portrait 19. South Africa, 2016. Picture: Peter Hugo

  • Potrait 9. Rwanda, 2015. Picture: Peter Hugo

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Photography: The real San

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Children should be seen and not heard.” An all too familiar repressive declaration, this view was spawned in the Victorian Age, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution in which children of the poor were used as slave labour, while those of the wealthy, their fates assigned by gender, were raised to be the agents of a supremacist empire.

That children today remain the victims of power, indentured labour and sexual slavery, reaffirms the dark heart of this cliché — children must not and cannot be heard for fear that they will reveal the perverse core of our familial, educative, global-corporate core in which children, in one way or another, are systemically wronged.

Better that they be seen, then, and not heard. And in this light perhaps photography, an optic that can further fix a child, objectify him or her, just might be yet another means through which their presence can be controlled.

Emblematic of that most avidly sought-after elixir — youth — children are reminders of our lost past, our supposed innocence, which perhaps is why they are despised all the more, and why we, the gerontocratic despisers of the free will of children, also inaccurately declare that “youth is wasted on the young”.

What then, given this soulless oppression of children in societies worldwide, are we to make of Pieter Hugo’s photographic reading, because, of course, no photograph is innocent, and neither is its subject — in this case a grouping of children from SA and Rwanda.

On entering the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town one is struck immediately by the austere sumptuousness of the space — the gallery is cavernous, allowing a photographic work room to breathe. And the scale of each work, beaded with a pale wood, possesses a complementary scale. The children, therefore, emerge on a human scale, they accompany us, watch us as we silently absorb their presence. For, of course, galleries too are sanctums, zones of silence, where the sacred and the profane commingle.

One is immediately struck by the fact that the photographs are staged, set up. But this is not truly surprising given that Hugo has always showcased his yen for choreography — and here Hugo’s brilliant Nollywood series is a striking case in point. One notices in his children not only the postures, or poses, some awkward, as though the child were rearranged like any other prosthetic, but also the clothing that shrouds them, which, glaringly, suggests the dress-up. A Rwandan girl-child reclines upon a flame-red slope in a gold-sequined mini-dress; a pale blonde SA girl-child is seated in a forest attired in a period slip from the 1920s.

There is a precocity in every one of Hugo’s photographs, but this is not because of another idiotic adage that “one is wiser than one’s years”, but because what the photographer thrusts before us is precisely our perverse relationship with youth, our desire to either destroy or idealise it. Hugo, however, does neither. Despite the fact that he has composed, designed, lit his subjects, they are not fetish objects, and neither are they glib anthems to beauty. Rather, each subject pulses, fixes our eye, disturbs our composure. That they do so without aggression, without placing some moral demand upon us, without triggering our guilt, reveals all the more the power of Hugo’s images — they are all-importantly extra-moral, that is, they occupy a space outside of the grim circuitry of the exploitative economy of youth.

These are not children to be bought and sold — even if they operate within an art dealership — because what these children and their medium, Hugo, have given us is a powerful counter to abuse. Now Hugo has famously been charged by his detractors for being exploitative. I, however, have never thought so for the simple reason that each and every photograph is, perforce, exploitative. What matters, therefore, is how and why one takes an image. In Hugo’s case it is invariably a conscious act, a transparent act, an act in which the photographer never exempts himself.

That his images are never emblematic, or representative, or glibly ideological, allows them a greater traction and freedom. A brown bare-chested boy in shorts lounges at the lip of a forest stream, his one hand propped at the waist, the other immersed in the glittering rush of water. The gaze is direct, the full lips glitter in the dappled light. And I am reminded of the classic odalisque, the reclining nude, of centuries of posturing, of seduction. Another boy, blond, crouches, his bare feet clamped to a boulder, his eyes, red, glare unflinchingly, a crude scribble of a smile crosses his lips. It is the self-presence of this boy that binds one, the great reach of his selfhood, his boyhood, and the African ground that has birthed it.

For these, of course, are images of African children, these are the “giants” which Ingrid Jonker dreamt of and which Nelson Mandela eulogised when, in quoting Jonker, he declared that our children will become giants and travel the world “without a pass”. In hindsight, Jonker and Mandela are terribly mistaken. Our children are not free. Our ruling party would further enslave our youth to the past, despite the fact that youth operates best when not determined by the shackles of custom or the prison-house of duty.

Hugo’s youths are not — despite the dark history of child-soldiers — agents of some messianic change, and yet each in their own peculiar way consecrates change; they hover between worlds, alert, intact, empowered even in their seeming abjection which, in Hugo’s hands, is also a kind of self-mockery. For while every image is exquisitely beautiful — quite literally the object of art as a “thing of beauty” — it is the extra-moral consciousness which they generate, their acute grasp of place and time, their emphatic declaration that they are no mere snapshots but pointed declarations of worldliness — of being in this world — which gives the images their prosaic grandeur.

Hugo is a great photographer. Indeed, in my view he is by far the greatest living SA photographer, and the root of his greatness lies not merely in his unflinching eye, but its tactical reconstruction of its setting and its subject. For these are self-aware yet also potently existential images — images which, after Jean-Paul Sartre, declare the primacy of existence over essence. In other words, while always exquisitely produced, Hugo’s images are human, all-too-human.

If Hugo’s earlier exhibition, Kin, was a masterclass in revealing the stain and taint of SA’s genealogical heterogeneity, then 1994, that hapless romantic moment we dub our moment of independence and democracy, a fallacy we share with Rwanda, is through “the eyes of children” revealed to be a moment confounded by its own hubris, a hubris that precocious children such as those selected by Hugo have always seen in their elders. As the photographer declares: “I searched for children who seemed already to have fully formed personalities. There is an honesty and a forthrightness which cannot otherwise be evoked.”

Pieter Hugo – 1994 – Stevenson Gallery, June 2-July 16