Review: Araminta De Clermont at Casa Labia

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It was Araminta de Clermont’s photographs in leading South African newspapers and magazines that caught the eye of local art aficionado and dealer, João Ferreira. He gave de Clermont her first exhibition and has helped her successfully navigate the world of contemporary art photography. The Casa Labia Culture Centre in Muizenberg is now showing three of her powerful interconnecting photo essays in an exhibition entitled Transformations.

The first essay, Life After, is a series of rare close up portraits of gangsters. Their tattoos are mesmerizing artworks in their own right.  Created in prison with the most basic of materials, the men’s bodyart graphically communicates their lives and their ‘numbersin the ever powerful prison gangs. It is apparent that the photographer developed a connection with each of her subjects – no mean feat for a young British, architect-trained woman.

In contrast, Before Life is a body of work which focuses on girls in their prime: posing with pride in their Matric dance dresses with their homes as a backdrop.  While these homes are geographically not far from the Casa Labia, these girls are blossoming into young women in the informal settlements of the Cape Flats – a world away.

Similarly the third series, A New Life, depicts young men dressed in smart stylish new clothes – clothes which celebrate their recent initiation into manhood.

In both of the latter cases the families of these boys and girl save up for months, if not years, for these rites of passage which are afforded so much importance by the community in which they grew up. For these two bodies of work the prints are large and striking and each subject glows with pride. But there is a pathos and sadness in the images. Despite brimming with potential many of these beautiful young people face a bleak future: the neighbourhoods in which they live are beset by high unemployment and low wages, riven with abuse of drugs and alcohol, and terrorized by gangsters such as those seen in the first series.

But de Clermont hints at a way out, a possibility of long lasting transformation. “It amazes me to see how much one can transform oneself and become stronger,” she explains. Having been through a testing transformation herself with recovery from addiction, she is fascinated by change. “It’s what being alive is all about,” she says, “Growing, transforming and working to keep those changes in oneself alive and not slipping back into old ways of being.”

This exhibition is a testament to the power of the human spirit. Many of these young men and women are likely to end up the victims of their surroundings, but for all of them there is hope, particularly at the very moment captured on film.  Even for those gangsters portrayed in Life After there is hope, as hinted at in the very name of the essay and the exhibition.

Transformations is also superbly curated and hung, with the gangster series in the more enclosed, narrow space of the gallery while the larger prints of the young people line the lighter, airier rooms of this historic building with its breathtaking views of the sea close by.

The Casa Labia is without doubt an uplifting place to visit, especially after its own transformation and restoration. It is now an educational trust run by the Labia family, and is gradually becoming a destination for connoisseurs, collectors and, of course, café-lovers (the Casa Labia café should be a must on anyone’s list). We can look forward to its summer show of contemporary art and its new shop, both opening this December.

Kate Crane Briggs

Araminta de Clermont’s Transformations runs at the Casa Labia 2 October to 25 November 2012.

For tours of local art, contact Kate Crane Briggs on cultureconnectsa@gmail.com or +27 (0)72 377 8014.

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