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Getty Acquires Significant Group of South African Photographs

Photographs from Pieter Hugos “Permanent Error” series and
Zwelethu Mthethwa’s “Interiors” and “Sugar Cane” series

The J. Paul Getty Museum announced the acquisition of nine photographs by two important South African photographers, Pieter Hugo and Zwelethu Mthethwa. Five photographs are from Hugo’s Permanent Error series, which documents the people and landscapes of a technology dump in Ghana, and two photographs from Mthethwa’s Interiors series that shows citizens at home in the townships around Cape Town, and his Sugar Cane series, which heroically portrays sugar cane workers in South Africa. All nine photographs were acquired through the support of the Getty Museum’s Photographs Council.

“These acquisitions, by two of the most influential artists in South Africa today, represent big strides in diversifying our contemporary holdings,” explains Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs at the Getty Museum. “I am thankful to the Photographs Council, not only for their continued support in making such acquisitions possible, but for furthering the expansion of the Getty Museums collection into new areas.”

The Getty Museum’s Photographs Council is a group of individuals united by their passion for photography that assist with the development of the Museum’s collection and related special projects. Over the last few years, the Photographs Council has made several important acquisitions for the Getty including key works by international photographers, such as Simryn Gill (Singaporean, born 1959), a set of sixteen photographs comprising the series Forest (19961998); Candida Höfer (German, born 1944), Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek Weimar II (2004); Daido Moriyama (Japanese, born 1938), a group of eight photographs made between 19952006; and Vik Muniz (American, born Brazil 1961) Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (after Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes) (2005).

About Pieter Hugo (South African, born Johannesburg, 1976)

During 2009-2010, Hugo worked on his Permanent Error series in Ghana, where he documented the people and landscape of an expansive dump of obsolete technology. Referred to by local inhabitants as Sodom and Gomorrah, the waste ground is located on the outskirts of a slum known as Agbogbloshie.

Hugo describes the scene of people and cattle “living on mountains of motherboards, monitors, and discarded hard drives” and his photographs reveal a place greatly removed from the benefits of such technology, but greatly impacted by its consumption and discard. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Western countries produce 50 million tons of digital waste every year, very little of which is collected and effectively recycled. The majority of waste is transported to developing countries where people extract copper and other metals from the digital devices by burning them. The resulting waste contaminates everything from air quality to drinking water. Such is the case at Agbogbloshie, where high levels of lead, mercury, thallium, hydrogen cyanide and PVC were found in the burn soil after tests carried out by Greenpeace in 2008.

While Hugo’s The Permanent Error images seem apocalyptic at times, there is also an element of the Arcadian landscape with shepherd-like figures and a mythological white bull. By portraying this tension, he succeeds in highlighting the very real disparity between Western society and developing countries that is seemingly exaggerated by the digital divide. The pastoral quality of the work calls on a long tradition of painting, but the style of the photographs is firmly Hugo: large square format with natural color and centrally placed foreground figure.

About Zwelethu Mthethwa (South African, born Durban, 1960)

Mthethwa received both his Diploma and Advanced Diploma in Fine Arts from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1984 and 1985. Four years later, after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship, he completed an MFA in Imaging Art from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York. His Interiors Series (19952005) consists of large format color photographs documenting the townships around Cape Town and in particular the inhabitants of these informal settlements. His images reveal the vitality and inherent dignity of the people who live in these cramped, impoverished conditions. His Sugar Cane Series (2003) similarly presents ordinary South Africans in a heroic tradition, while investigating the exploitation of these workers and the land in post-apartheid South Africa. Mthethwa chooses to work in color because he believes it is a “dignifying vehicle” with which to represent these groups of people.

Top Image: Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, negative 2009; print 2010. Pieter Hugo (South African, born 1976). Chromogenic print. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council, Los Angeles. © Pieter Hugo;

Images: (LEFT) Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, negative 2009; print 2010. Pieter Hugo (South African, born 1976). Chromogenic print. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council, Los Angeles. © Pieter Hugo; (RIGHT) Untitled, negative 2000; print 2010. Zwelethu Mthethwa (South African, born 1960). Digital chromogenic print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. © Zwelethu Mthethwa

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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