Developing Characters: Private Lives in Tense Times ☆

An advertisement from Dr. Dubin’s Developing Characters exhibition held in Johannesburg, South Africa, August of 2013.

A visit to the local art gallery may serve as a break from your regular routine, or perhaps a gallery visit is your first stop each weekend. Regardless of your gallery viewing habits, would you be curious if a foreign curator arrived to announce an exhibition about your city during the height of apartheid? Dr. Steven Dubin did exactly that last August: his exhibition of Kitty Moodley’s photography shared the private side of South African apartheid-era life with the current citizens of Johannesburg.

Just over two years ago, Dr. Steven Dubin, the Program Coordinator of our Arts Administration program, embarked on the process of curating an exhibition around the serendipitous recovery of Kitty Moodley’s photography. An avid traveler, Dr. Dubin had been frequenting South Africa every summer for thirteen years, before he happened upon a box of photo negatives being stored in the garage of a local art student. This box of negatives at first appeared a regular collection that anyone may stumble upon amidst their personal belongings: frames of men, women, and families posing in their finery. No normal batch of still shots, however, this archival treasure shows a timeline of personal photos taken at Kitty Moodley’s Pietermaritzburg studio between 1972 and 1984, when business was bountiful but racial segregation was stringent.

Dr. Dubin returned to New York with his find of 1,409 negatives in 2011, the remains of a photo collection discarded by their original South African curator in 1987. Fearing the potential ramifications of negatives showing Africans in both traditional and Western apparel, this curator had hastily disposed of all non-traditional images. But Dr. Dubin, more than two decades later, was elated for the chance to finally bring those long lost negatives to light. A year of cleaning, digitizing, and categorizing the many pictures ensued, followed by several months of reconnaissance when Dr. Dubin returned to South Africa for in-depth interviews with Kitty Moodley’s family, acquaintances, and experts on local photography. By the close of his second year on the project, Dr. Dubin had slimmed down the vast array of negatives to the 80 photos he feels are most evocative and best showcase the moment of South Africa’s transition between traditional and Western fashion.

These photos were taken by Kitty Moodley, a studio owner in Pietermaritzburg during the South African apartheid. Once a shoe factory machinist, he became an entrepreneurial photographer for the freedom to express his political opinions. His shop quickly became a community center of sorts for men to speak at ease about cultural issues and, like many photography studios in the region, it served as a resource for the people of Pietermaritzburg to transcend the constraints of apartheid. Unlike other photography studios, however, Kitty’s did not provide a dress-up box of props, and customers would instead bring their finest outfits. As Dr. Dubin describes, Kitty’s customers would “try on different identities” when visiting the studio. By posing in their nicest clothes, they were “aspiring to certain things they were not allowed to be,” due to the multi-racial restrictions imposed by apartheid.

Dr. Dubin opened his exhibition, Developing Characters, in Johannesburg last August, without the slightest consternation. Upon his decision to include several photos of bare-breasted women amongst the collection, several of his colleagues expressed unease. But Dr. Dubin says he was steadfast in his desire “to show the largely mysterious private lives of apartheid victims of this era.” Bare-breasted women today remain a nominal part of the Zulu culture, the enthusiasm of locals reminiscing about Kitty’s Studio and marveling at Dr. Dubin’s exhibition superseding the occasional ethical critique.

Dr. Dubin plans to curate further showings of Developing Characters, to continue sharing the history of Pietermaritzburg through Kitty Moodley’s photography. He has confirmed showings next year in Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town, with the hope that more visitors will recognize friends and family in the photographs. He is also looking for gallery spaces in New York, Israel, and Iceland. Curating abroad can be an enriching experience which unleashes a cache of historic wonders, and unites a community in reminiscence on their common past.

By Alyssa Foster

Arts & Humanities Writer