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This photographic exhibition at João Ferreira Gallery has all the hallmarks of a real Girl's Night Out. A group of determined women, and one outnumbered man, have embarked after many months of preparation on a much anticipated adventure. But although they clearly had fun in the process, hedonistic pleasure is not the curatorial emphasis of this show. Ten top contemporary artists were invited to look through their unique lenses at the experience of women living within a South African context. Some were quite familiar with the camera; others had to find a way of working with an entirely new medium.

The result is a revealing insight into the feminine psyche of a nation beginning its second decade of democracy. Girl's Night Out offers a myriad of perspectives both uplifting and disturbing. This is probably unsurprising in a country where women face the brunt of many socio-economic challenges and a strongly patriarchal culture.

And yet the mood is far from sombre. The drink of the night appears to be a double tot of humour with a splash of irony. The tone is set with Brigitta Gaylard's Boudoir Boards. One of them, Nothing sucks like Electrolux, literally invites visitors to interact by inserting their head into the picture of a housewife with a vacuum cleaner.

The same 1950s post-war values of integrity, hope and virtue are played out in Bridget Baker's fictionalized narrative The Maiden Perfect. She has photographed a woman at a ship's railing, drenched by tossing seas and strong wind, symbolizing a dying patron saint of high ideals, family and achievable expectations.

The body as subject recurs throughout the show. It is a trend quite prevalent in contemporary South African art and photography is no exception. In some cases, the body is the artist's own.

Curator Tracy Lindner Gander documents the transformation of her body during the last six weeks of pregnancy in a series called 32 to 40 Weeks. She explores shifting identities and perceptions through a peephole device that places the viewer in a voyeuristic role of outsider looking in.

In other cases, the artist photographs the bodies of others. Sarah Nankin exhibits a series of gymnasts and ice skaters. Claire Breukel cleverly photo-montages found images of her mother and grandmother over Western Cape landscapes in an exploration of sexuality among older women.

Arnold Erasmus goes one step further with a staged beauty contest in an underground parking lot. His DVD, Document 8, aims to deconstruct the beauty queen myth where the numbered contestant is trapped in a looped parallel world. The stark lighting and cold architecture provide the perfect foil for the oppressive one-woman parade that transpires.

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, in collaboration with Ingrid Masondo and Keorapetse Mosimane, also makes masterful use of the set-up. She staged a party for black gay women from the townships around Johannesburg and documented the results of their night on the town.

Other artists forsake the body altogether. Suzy's Lovers by Lien Botha are a series of five beautiful colour images printed onto canvas showing close-up details of fabric. Although the body is physically absent, it is strongly implied. The images suggest very tactile associations.

Sue Williamson's series is perhaps the most extreme in this regard: somewhat surprisingly, no women feature at all. But that is exactly the point. Her photographs of men from El Max, a small fishing village in Alexandria, Egypt, are very revealing: the men enjoy the balmy evenings playing dominoes and smoking shisha pipes while the women stay indoors. Williamson, as a foreigner, was exempted from those gender rules.

In quite a literal take on the brief, artist Katherine Bull documents nights out and about in Cape Town in a series of digital photographs taken with her cell phone camera. Her evidence is compelling.

But can one ever effectively describe a Girl's Night Out? The telling of the tale is not quite the same thing. A first-hand viewing is therefore highly recommended.

Kim Gurney, Febuary 2005


Installation images, João Ferreira Gallery, 2005. Click on thumbnails to enlarge.

gno Joao Ferreira Gallery