Facing the shadows
"As white people it was normal everyday practice to have a black lady cleaning your toilet and a black man mowing your lawn"
One night in Johannesburg, six or seven years ago, Petré Smith sat at the wheel of his car, stationary in traffic, his wallet on the passenger seat. Two kids, 11 or 12, their clothing in ruins, were working the area. One of them begged at Petré’s side distracting him from the other kid, who shattered his passenger window (with a spark plug or rock maybe) before swiping the wallet and fleeing. “Get him,” said the voice in Petré’s head. His body obeyed, and his vehicle followed the boy, stopping just before hitting him as he realised how wrong the pursuit was, that being ready to kill a child for a wallet containing 200 rand (about £10) was not right.
Relaying the event in the green room at Chipping Norton Theatre, Petré is perhaps fittingly interrupted by a test of the venue’s intruder alarm. He continues the story over it, telling me of his drive to the motorway where he found two uninterested and overweight policemen sat in their car eating chicken, while hungry children were nearby stealing “out of absolute desperation”, likely using what money they had acquired for glue to escape with. Petré had to open the door of the police car himself, “I need your help,” he said. “I was smashed and grabbed.” The police advised he visit the nearest police station to his home, so he could claim insurance – that was all the response he got. Petré closed the door, they carried on eating, he left, arriving at the conclusion he could no longer raise his son in South Africa. “I can’t do this to him,” he thought. The theatre alarm stops.
The “country boy” and photographer moved with his wife and son to Chipping Norton, where the woman he married can walk to work on her own, unlike in South Africa, he says, “one of the rape capitals of the world.” She works at the town’s theatre and recently mentioned upcoming production The Island to her husband. This play and its subject motivated him into putting on a photography exhibition he’d been wanting to do – an exhibition he hopes will give those who see it more insight into the “messy world” we inhabit.
He was brought up “in the latter part of the apartheid era” in South Africa – the period of government in the country that saw its people segregated according to their ethnicity. As a white South African, Petré enjoyed more opportunities than the non-whites, and was free of the “serious limitations” they met with.
“As white people it was normal everyday practice to have a black lady cleaning your toilet and a black man mowing your lawn,” he says. “They were the ones packing your groceries, they were the plumbers. All the jobs the whites didn’t want to do were given to the blacks, and they were paid pennies.”
His father’s position in personal relations for the correctional services qualified the family for holidays on Robben Island. “Beautiful” Dutch built Victorian buildings were home for one or two weeks, while Petré and his cousin roamed free through “paradise”, discovering shipwrecks and old cannons as the sun beat down on them. The pair would play on the patch of grass between Leprosarium Graveyard and the island’s prison; yet as they did so Nelson Mandela sat incarcerated in the latter.
Work on the electrics at the theatre make for the building’s lights to flicker on and off throughout our interview. We sit in darkness for a time before the room gets brighter, lighting up Petré’s face as he talks. Then the colour of the space dims again – over and over this process is repeated. It symbolises the contrast at the heart of Petré’s upcoming exhibition, ‘Kwisiqithi’ (Xhosa for ‘The Island’) – that clash between the artist’s joyful, innocent youthful experiences of Robben Island and the fact it was also host to a prison “built for suffering, for seclusion, for segregation, for pain.”
The apartheid system sanctioned by the National Party bred terrorism in opposition of it. The perpetrators of this terrorism were imprisoned on the island. They were terrorists, Petré says, “Mandela and his crew planted the bomb that nearly blew up my father.” His dad was in the targeted building when this bomb went off. “I saw it explode.” But his father did not come away from the attack wanting to punish those who instigated it. One of the strongest lessons Petré, himself a father of two, learned from his “very liberal” dad was the importance of seeing both sides of the story. We have to take into account, the photographer says, the fact the terrorists became so because they were oppressed.
For the photos that make up ‘Kwisiqithi’, Petré went back to Robben Island for the first time in 20 years. He watched his son tread the same footpaths he had done at that age, seeing, he tells me, how his own dad must have seen him – “and how my son one day will perceive his son.” To make this new exhibition he was allowed to go inside the prison for the first time, through which he was guided by a former inmate, a bomb maker for the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). “This man was so gracious,” Petré recalls, “and he was so gentle.” The ex-convict apparently bore “no animosity towards white people.” Nothing was over exaggerated, everything was told as it happened. Petré went there fearful that the oppression of the blacks would be embellished; for while they were oppressed, “there are sometimes situations when tales are made more entertaining.” Here though the tour guide’s depiction “was beautifully true and pure.” He attributed blame to no party, “he just said what happened there, and that struck me: I think a lot of that has carried into what I’ve tried to explain with the art.”
The prison “is built to break your spirit,” he says. “It’s bland, it’s ugly, it’s cold. We walked into this hallway, and the sun appeared through these windows. It just lit up, it went yellow, it was gorgeous, and I had to stand still and take it in. The purity and innocence of sunlight destroyed the entire intention of this building. I think Mandela started to realise things like this, that even though you’re physically forced to be somewhere you can still find an escape – which I think he mastered. Hence the reason why he’s now eternal: we will never forget that man.”
Despite the “beautiful lessons learned from giants like Mandela”, Petré describes South Africa today as a place where the people “have become so cold and comfortable with death, violence and poverty.” And where during apartheid “corrupt white people” governed, he says, now “corrupt black people do.” Black people in South Africa “still get paid slave wages” as far as he is concerned – they are still “worse off.” But they are scared of voting in the Democratic Alliance (DA) instead of the currently governing African National Congress (ANC). Although the DA have a black leader now in Mmusi Maimane, voters – “so scared of giving power back to the white man” – believe, due to that party’s history, electing them could spawn apartheid’s return. It’s a fear “the corrupt [President Jacob] Zuma and his cronies” of the ANC are using to their advantage, exploiting it so as to remain in power. While “apartheid cannot and will not happen again,” Petré asserts, it has left scars in South Africa. The country he no longer calls home continues to be “a very complex place” that he does not see getting sorted for quite some time.
Meanwhile in West Oxfordshire, he prepares for ‘Kwisiqithi’, through which he encourages us to see the entire picture of apartheid, not so we pick sides, but so we grow as moral beings. It’s a series born out of a harrowing subject, but there’s not much to be learned, its creator remarks, “in everything pretty.” We learn our greatest lessons “when we are forced to face the dark side, the shadows.”
Petré Smith’s ‘Kwisiqithi’ (part of Oxfordshire Artweeks) is on display in the gallery at Chipping Norton Theatre from 9th-21st May, and is free to attend. It runs alongside Athol Fugad, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s The Island, performed in the theatre from 10th-20th May.
Top Image © 2017 | Petré Smith Photography
Bottom Image © 2017 | Petré Smith Photography