Down the highway with David Southwood

by Sam Scott

Staff Writer

This week, a small piece of South Africa came to Sewanee with photographer David Southwood’s exhibitions N1 and Beach Boys. A Bauhaus award winner who has had his work published in The New York Times, Southwood has devoted his career to documenting life in his home country, and in 2000 he helped found Umlilo, a nonprofit group for street photographers on Africa’s Western Cape. His N1 series comes from photos the artist has taken along the titular highway, which runs all the way from the northern border to the sea. Rather than carefully posed and lit of immediacy, capturing these scenes of urban and rural Africa exactly as he finds them. This approach applied equally to his subject matter, as the artist records for posterity moments most photographers would ignore. His work is full of portraits of average people, panoramas of average landscapes, and small details of the road and the road-side that he makes into something memorable. At the same time, he expertly showcases the beauty of light and color, on faces, flowers, and even the asphalt of the N1. “Historically, socially and politically [the N1’s] 2100 kms are charged,” Southwood writes on his website. “However the road proper only appears at the front and end of the series. Between these brackets it’s presented as a series of oblique scenes which occurred on and around the road, and which attempt to give a sense of the road’s taut atmosphere.”

In contrast to the gritty immediacy of N1, Beach Photo courtesy of UAGBoys shows Southwood’s skills as a craftsman in starkly beautiful black and white portraits of the marginalized citizens of South Africa and the places they live. But while he reproduces his travel snapshots in glossy prints, these polished works are displayed on newsprint. Southwood’s love of the urban land-scape is on display in these photographs, as he captures every bit of wear and tear on the bricks of overpasses and a post-card-worthy aerial shot of a South African skyline. He makes hoodies glow while hiding the faces beneath them in dark shadows. On display with these works are extensive text pieces (including a text message!) that give an American audience insight into the photo-graphs’ context. You can see these artworks for yourself at the University Gallery through October 12.

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