Dialogues, from Africa: Juan Orrantia with Monique Pelser

Stars, 2011 © Monique Pelser

Post by Juan Orrantia

"Dialogues, from Africa" is a series made in response to Alejandro Cartagena's running series in fototazo, that wants to extend the dialogue across the Atlantic, but further south. Having been based in Johannesburg for some time now, I have always felt the need to create a space of dialogue where photographers working in Africa and Latin America learn about each other's work, but that is not filtered through the galleries or mainstream media of the global north. The world we live in is not one where limits are traced easily, and within these spaces photographic traditions are increasingly varied, recognized, ignored and reconceptualized. Africa is as complex and varied as Latin America, and this series wants to recognize the current engagements of photographers from the continent with their own histories and the current environments of contemporary photography. In so doing we hope to open a space that enables a dialogue with their peers in Latin America.

The first posts in the series have been with Alexia WebsterMusa Nxumalo and Vincent Bezuidenhout. Today we continue with Monique Pelser.

Juan Orrantia (b. Bogota, Colombia, based in Johannesburg, South Africa) Relying on the evocative as a form of documentary his photographic works use banality and imagination as sites from which to explore experiences of the aftermath of violence; the lives and affects of postcolonial cities; memory and the cocaine trade; and the legacies of anticolonial thinker Amilcar Cabral. Awards include the Tierney Fellowship in Photography, solo exhibitions in Germany, Colombia and South Africa, as well as participation in various group shows including the New York Photo Festival, Le Cube (Paris), Cape Town Month of Photography, Bonani Africa Festival of Photography and Ethnographic Terminalia (New Orleans). His work has appeared in fototazo, Foto 8, Sensate and other online media platforms and journals.

Monique Pelser, born in 1976 in Johannesburg South Africa, is a visual artist currently working and living between Cape Town and New York City. A Tierney Fellowship recipient for 2010 and voted by Art South Africa as a bright young artist for 2007, Pelser is well known for her role reversal portraits. Pelser was educated at the Market Photography workshop in 1996 and in fine art at Rhodes University Grahamstown where she majored in the photographic arts. In 2006 she was awarded a Masters of Fine Art with distinction. In 2012 she attend the PhotoGlobal program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Since 2007 she has lectured in photography and visual art at Rhodes University, AAA School of Advertising in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Wits School of Arts, The Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg and Stellenbosch Visual Arts Department. Recent shows include ANALOGUE EYE: Video Art Africa mobile film festival, Grahamstown National Arts Festival, Infecting the City, a public installation of Bystanders in the City of Cape Town, and New Releases at Site 109, New York. Her work can be found at http://www.moniquepelser.com/ and http://moniquepelserportraits.blogspot.com.

Bullets, 2011 © Monique Pelser

Juan Orrantia: Where are you based? Why?

Monique Pelser: Cape Town, New York, Grahamstown.  I love all three all for very different reasons.

JO: How and why did you start working in/with photography?

MP: I trained at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in 1996 after I got back from a year of living in Holland. I wrote a lot of poetry back then and started to make observations. The woman I worked for in Holland, Leonne Meiresonne, bought me a small camera as a gift and I started to photograph everything. So it made sense that when I returned home to Johannesburg I should further my interest in photography. The Market Photo Workshop was a small space at the back of the Market Theatre then. I did a beginners course in photography and then went off to live in London. While I was there I continued to photograph and I worked for a little while as the runner and kippie photographer for the Mirror Group in Canary Wharf. In 1999 after I got home from England I started off working in the media with the Associated Press in Johannesburg under world press photographers Temba Hedebe and Cobus Bodenstien. I got to drive around Johannesburg with them and witness these amazing political moments. I also loved live music concerts, but hated crowds and wanted to be in the front where I had an exclusive view, so I made a press pass and got in and photographed famous bands that came to South Africa. After a little while it became clear that I overanalyzed and over-questioned everything and so after much suggestion I moved on and studied further. I did a BFA and Master of Fine Art at Rhodes University from 2001-2006. It wasn't until I did my master's degree that I figured out how to use photography/video and sound to say the things I wanted to communicate.

Film still, From the series "Conversations with my Father" 2013 © Monique Pelser

JO: What are your projects about, and what are the major themes in your work?

MP: My projects are about authority, the authority of the camera and/or the gaze. My work extends to the media and also into the police. I am trying to work with found surveillance at the moment, but I am working with the police and it's not that easy to get what I need and want from them. Also I have recently started to work more narratively and my first story is going to be illustrated and then photographed or scanned. This work is about looking, attachment and love.

Film still, From the series "Conversations with my Father" 2013 © Monique Pelser

Film still, From the series "Conversations with my Father" 2013 © Monique Pelser

The work shown here, "Conversations with my Father" has its roots in that. When I was a young girl, I was strictly forbidden from digging through my father’s belongings. We all knew he had a collection of things he had assembled during his career as a policeman, which he stored in metal trunks, suitcases and boxes in a wooden shed outside our house. Sometimes when my father was out I would spend hours and hours sifting through and dressing up in his uniforms, badges, and watches and looking at bullets, dog tags, pens, pencils, stamps, matchboxes, cassette tapes, photographs of my mother and his police dog Shadow, pipes, pipe cleaners, shoes and shoe polish, and some objects I had no idea the purpose of. As a young girl I spent a lot of time trying to put pieces of my father's life together.

"Conversations with my Father" is one part of a continuous dialogue (2011-present) between myself and the objects, images, sound recordings and documents I inherited in 2010 after my father died of a rare motor neuron disease which rendered him unable to speak for the last year and a half of his life.

Film still, From the series "Conversations with my Father" 2013 © Monique Pelser

Film still, From the series "Conversations with my Father" 2013 © Monique Pelser

Both my paternal grandfather and my father were South African Police (SAP) and their respective careers spanned the rise and fall of the Apartheid era. My father was a good man, he was a good father, he was also a product of his environment and part of a history which is deeply problematic.

In my investigation I turn the forensic gaze onto the evidence of my father as official and authoritarian figure. This act of scrutinizing, archiving, layering and manipulating allows me to keep in contact with my father to process my own inherent guilt.

From the series "Soldiers" 2013 © Monique Pelser

JO: What is your experience with other photographers and traditions from the (African) continent? How did you learn of them or their work?

MP: I'm from South Africa so I am in constant contact with African photographers but beyond that I have been very fortunate to have been selected for five years running to participate in a master class and portfolio review for emerging African photographers. From 2008 -2013 we were flown around the continent and met annually to attend these conferences and to look at each others work, give feedback and also to be exposed to various photographic festivals such as Lagos Photo, Addis Foto Fest or Recontres Du Bamako. Over the years I got to meet some amazing photographers and artists who come from Africa and who are working as diaspora artists. From this experience I curated a show called Temoin, which was the first of its kind, curated and produced by African photographers and which toured the continent. I got to work closely with artists such as Sammy Baloji, Sabelo Mlangeni, Abraham Oghobase, Michael Tsegaye, Calvin Dondo.  It was an amazing experience and I learned how to better trust my own intuition through watching them work and get to the point that they felt work was ready.

This year I was fortunate to be part of the Analogue Eye film festival and my work was shown alongside some amazing African filmmakers.

From the series "Soldiers" 2013 © Monique Pelser

JO: How do you feel your approach speaks to South African photography traditions, and/or contemporary photography?

MP: My work is political and in South Africa we photographers emerged out of a political and struggle context. So in that sense my work is tied to the South African tradition. I have always been drawn to pushing the medium, questioning it and working with up-to-date technology, so I work with screengrabs, social media, digital screens and in public places. The photographic medium is constantly advancing and there is constant change and I try to use that to inform my work. I am very interested in how we see in terms of how we are taught to see, how public messaging systems inform our way of looking and behaving and the kind of authority this sets up. I suppose in that way my work is self-reflexive and that would make it relevant or place it in a contemporary photographic context.

From the series "Soldiers" 2013 © Monique Pelser

JO: Are there themes or styles that your work shares with other African photographers?

MP: African photographers are dealing with a massive and broad amount of issues and contexts in their work. I don't think it is that easy to generalize in terms of themes or styles across an entire continent. In South Africa my last body of work dealt with the police and the Angola Border War and there are a few South African photographers and artists dealing with that material and that are looking beyond the South African border. Abraham Oghobase from Nigeria and I have often thought our work dealt with similar concerns about using ourselves and our own lives in our work but trying to avoid the work from being diaristic.

Border war 2011 © Monique Pelser

JO: Where do you see your work going, that is, how is your practice evolving?

MP: At the moment I'm very interested in how to work with narrative in photography and I am starting to make short films. I really love exploring territory I don't know. Often the thing that will push me into a new body of work will be that I have never worked in that way before and I want to learn how to do it. I can't draw, I failed drawing at university so my new work is a series of line drawings…we'll see where they end up. So I think my practice is evolving into making short films that draw from photography.

Holsters, 2011 © Monique Pelser