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Arts

Hyenas, Nollywood actors and albinos: Pieter Hugo's photos of post-colonial Africa

With his authentic yet surreal portraits, South African photographer Pieter Hugo reaches out to the marginalized. His exhibition "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" is now on display at the Wolfsburg Kunstmuseum.

A muscular tattooed man is standing half naked in front of a bush while tightly holding a baby in a romper suit. The man is staring into the camera with a dead serious expression on his face - just like the baby.

The picture features artist Pieter Hugo with his son in South Nature's Valley in South Africa. It's one of numerous works in the exhibition "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," now on show at the Wolfsburg Kunstmuseum.

The photograph is part of Hugo's series "Kin," which features pictures of his friends and family members, as well as other people from his homeland. He asked them what family and home means to them, while personally reflecting on the same question. How do people live in a society marked by decades of apartheid and oppression? How do people raise their children in a country torn by conflicts? These are the issues that are reflected in Hugo's work in which he successfully links the past with present through portraits, still lifes and landscape photography.

Pictures of outsiders and the marginalized

Pieter Hugo: Between the Devil and the deep blue Sea | ANNEBELLE SCHREUDERS (Pieter Hugo, Priska Pasquer, Cologne)

Filters shed a new light on the uniqueness of each person, as seen here with Mkhonzemi Welcome Makma

Hugo not only portrays friends and family members, but also scrap collectors, beggars, drug addicts, albinos and blind people: the outsiders and marginalized of society. As a white South African, he sees himself as an outsider, too. Moving across all social groups, he depicts social problems and the paradoxes of power structures. Raising people's awareness about social problems and contrasts, his photographs ask questions without giving answers.

Pieter Hugo: Between the Devil and the deep blue Sea | ANNEBELLE SCHREUDERS (Pieter Hugo, Priska Pasquer, Cologne)

Deersan in Beijing

Affected by his own country's history

Pieter Hugo was born in 1976 in Johannesburg. In 1994, South Africa transitioned from the former apartheid system into a democracy, while Rwanda was afflicted by genocide. It was an important year for the photographer: 18 years old at the time, he had just finished school and left his home. He started to work as a freelance photo journalist in Cape Town until he traveled to Rwanda in 2004. In his series "Vestiges of a Genocide," he documented the consequences of the genocide 10 years after it occurred.

Through the eyes of a child

Another 10 years later, he returned to Rwanda where he produced his series "1994," which portrays of Rwandese children. Through these photos, he explores how the post-genocide generation deals with the country's past. Hugo is fascinated by the children's lack of prejudice and their neutral view of things.

As Hugo wrote in the catalog of the current Wolfsburg exhibition, these children haven't been affected by the events to the same extent as their parents, and yet they are a burden on them. One photograph shows two boys in a field of flowers, seemingly peaceful surroundings, free of any "historical baggage," as Hugo puts it. But the children on these portraits, looking seriously and directly into the camera, don't come across as innocent children. Their glance rather transmits an accusation. 

Pieter Hugo: Between the Devil and the deep blue Sea | ANNEBELLE SCHREUDERS (Pieter Hugo, Priska Pasquer, Cologne)

Clothing removed from genocide victims at Murambi Technical School, where around 50,000 people murdered during the Rwandan genocide

International topics

Pieter Hugo doesn't limit himself to topics of the African continent. He has also worked in California and China with children and the elderly alike, as well as people of different social groups and of different professions.

He treats all people with the same degree of respect, whether his own family members, judges, homeless people, transsexuals or people with mental disorders.

He is interested in the blatant and hidden contrasts within a given society, as well as the conflict between tradition and modernity. That also inspired another one of his series, "Flat Noodle Soup Talk," produced during a stay in China. These photographs also deal with subcultures, people who don't fit into the "ideal" of a society: a half-nude homosexual couple, or a young girl in front of a blossoming cherry tree, which would appear completely clichéed if it weren't for the piercings in the girl's face.

No matter on which continent Pieter Hugo shoots his pictures, what they all have in common is that they uncover social conflicts and contrasts, thereby stimulating the viewers to think for themselves.

Pieter Hugo's exhibition "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" at the Wolfsburg Kunstmusem runs until July 23, 2017.

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