It was the end of the summer and I was driving along the south coast of South Africa. The international success of my previous exhibition of photography, Sign of Life, had left me in the enviable position of not having to work for a couple of years but in truth, I was suffering from ‘second album syndrome’ and I felt bereft of any concrete ideas regarding a new visual narrative to follow up Sign of Life.
I stayed the night in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape and the following morning over breakfast I read a news report of a fatal shark attack on a 71-year-old Austrian tourist further up the coast in a small seaside hamlet called Port St Johns.
In the background of the pictures that accompanied the news report stood a large bull seemingly oblivious to all the drama going on around him and whilst it wasn’t the focus of the story, I was immediately struck by the graphic power of the huge beast standing on the wet sand with the shimmering cobalt Indian Ocean forming a backdrop. It was unexpected, absurd even, but I also found the scene strangely moving at the same time.
I decided I’d better drive further up the coast to investigate.
Port St Johns sits in a deep rocky gorge where the Umzimvubu River spills out into the Indian Ocean. The community is made up primarily of a sub-branch of the Xhosa tribe; the Pondo and the surrounding area is known as Pondoland.
The cattle herds of the Pondo people are more than just a source of labour and food, they are inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Pondo existence. An elaborate vocabulary has evolved which the Pondo people employ to express their feelings, both about the value of their cattle and their aesthetic responses to the grace and beauty of these animals. Cattle are milked, cherished and addressed by evocative metaphor in Pondo culture and traditionally they have been kept close to home after nightfall in a central byre or kraal surrounded by the huts of the people who care for them.
Released from the kraal at sunrise, the animals graze along this pristine coastal fringe of tumbling hills, bisected by many rivers and streams, with deep valleys and ravines buried in dark indigenous forest. During the heat of the afternoon, the horizon shimmers with the cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean while the animals make their way to one of the most shark-infested beaches on earth to cool off in the gentle sea breeze.
Following a comprehensive survey of the locale with my assistant, we decided to work initially at the beach known locally as Second Beach due to the flat topography and its cove-like shape with steep grassy land features rising on either side. Cattle arrived at the beach spasmodically throughout the day thus requiring a number of exposure strategies.
From a technical point of view, the creation of the Amapondo photography collection presented a number of issues, firstly in terms of the dynamic range; a number of compromises would need to be made which would involve decisions on over or under exposing certain elements of the composition or filling the subject with artificial light. The area has some amazing cloud formations depending on the season, but often the sky would be a featureless blue for days on end. Some days, the cattle wouldn’t show, or the beach would be full of tourists.
As summer extended into autumn, I realised that this project would be a longer process than first imagined. After a month-long break in Bali, where I was shooting a feature for the Spanish edition of Conde de Nast Traveller, I returned to Port St Johns. Winter had set in, and the behaviour of the cattle in regards to their beach visitations had changed dramatically. During the cooler months of the year, the animals sit high on the beach where the sun has warmed the sand and no amount of encouragement was sufficient to shift them into the position I required, so I packed up and went back home to Australia.
Returning for a third shoot in November, conditions proved much more favourable with beasts down in the tidal zones every day and elaborate cloud formations present on the horizon. Within two weeks, Amapondo was in the can.
Following a highly successful debut in New York where art business magazine nominated me as the Top Artist to Watch in 2015, Amapondo returns to the country where it was made with a June 4th opening at the beautiful Jan Royce Gallery in Cape Town. The exhibition will run until 27 June 2015. Above all the other exhibitions booked for this year, I am looking forward to my South African show the most. I was raised in South Africa and I left my heart in this absurdly beautiful and complex country when I left. Seeing my work hung in a South African gallery will be a homecoming for me in every sense of the word.
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