‘Wry cameo of another, newer, hopefully happier South Africa’

Michael Meyersfeld, Guarded Futures. “Taken in a park just north of the high-rise residential area of Hillbrow. This image symbolises the acceptance of the co-existence of blacks and whites, which might require the presence of a “watchdog” for some time to come.”

Michael Meyersfeld is a Johannesburg based artist known for his stark, sometimes sombre, lonely and edgy imagery that involves the staging of people in structured scenes, portraying emotional and behavioural patterns.

In Adaptation, a collection of recent photographs exhibited at In Toto in Birdhaven, Meyersfeld aims his lens at a society readjusting itself a little more than two decades after the inception of a democratic dispensation. In dealing with this process of adaptation, he consciously avoids the obvious and draws the viewer’s attention to the nuances of change by means of a series of images staged as social commentary.

Meyersfeld is not comfortable being drawn into giving explanations. His titles are deliberately obtuse nudging the viewer to uncover what memory or emotion that particular image has stirred in them, moving them to reflect and respond.

“Perhaps these images are no more than a reflection of something we remember we have seen, or thought we have seen, a wry cameo of another, newer, hopefully happier South Africa. A country that still bears scars, but that can unashamedly show them, because there is a belief that time will heal,” he says of this latest collection of black-white photographs.

Meyersfeld offers reflections of black and white being able to play games in a public park, ostensibly much safer under the watchful eye of a police dog as in Guarded Futures. He conjures a cameo in which “the other side of town” becomes a place to explore, two women in Western attire having a meal and a glass of Coke in a Muslim establishment complete with a photograph of Al Kaaba, and a twice repeated notice to “mind the step” as in The Other Side of Town.

As a trademark skill Meyersfeld draws on what the viewer might have seen from the corner of the eye, and on peripheral impressions the viewer might have archived subliminally. In focusing on these moments, events and interludes he is the astute artist drawing the attention to detail and making his viewers question our preconceived ideas – of transition and change in this case. His photographs draw responses from the viewer smiling inwardly, noting “yes, that’s how it is”, “this is the wonderful, crazy, beautiful, complex and resilient country that we all live in”. That singular moment he captures compels the viewer to pause and to reflect; to mull over, and perhaps facilitate richer understandings of the society we live in.

Meyersfeld does not shy away from the scars haunting the new South Africa: evident in powerful images such as The Epidemic of Shame and Bounty  – powerful in simplicity and unvarnished Gestalt. Likewise he does not ignore the other end, the “hopefully happier” face of success as in So?

However, it is in the areas of transition, in the grey areas of mobility that Meyersfeld’s masterful eye triumphs, teamed with his wry humour. He points his camera at a young upwardly mobile woman in Alexandra (Goats & Gaultier) presumably on her way to work in the high-rise executive world of Sandton. In the basement of the Standard Bank Gallery in downtown Johannesburg, he captures the perceived demise of the white male in Pale Man Fading. A haunting image of a phantom destined for oblivion.

Lauded locally as well as internationally for his keen eye and ability to capture the specific moment, Meyersfeld observes his subject matter studiously and interrogates the location and use of props vigorously. Yet, his work never seems laboured.

The spin he is puts on the educational crisis in the country (Bare Quest to Learn) is ingenious and more so a clear indication of his evocative and thought-provoking compositions.

Poignant and precise as his photographs are – the largest of them high quality Silvertone prints – the images presented in light boxes add yet a further dimension to Meyersfeld’s work. Lodged somewhere between two dimensional images, stills from a film sequence, and a sculptural installation these works transcend the standard static presentation, allowing for more and lateral readings of the work and lending a sense of the theatrical to his work. As he says: “I create my show. I find my story, my location, my models, and then put them together, but only up to the point where there is still enough room for the viewer to add, subtract or alter his or her interpretation at will.”

Johan Myburg


Michael Meyersfeld’s Adaptation opens on Thursday 15 June at 16:00 at In Toto Gallery, 6 Birdhaven Centre, 66 St Andrew Street Birdhaven 2196, 011 447 6543