University of Michigan Museum of Art

Ann Arbor, MI



Casting Shadows: Photographs by Edward West

December 2, 2000 - January 28, 2001


More than twenty-five years ago, photographer Edward West attended a play, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, by South African playwright Athol Fugard. Set in a photographer's studio, the play examined the harsh realities faced by black South Africans under the system of apartheid. It galvanized West's interest in the country and its people, an interest that was made manifest when, following the dismantling of that repressive regime, West traveled to South Africa. There he created Casting Shadows, a remarkable body of work depicting the daily lives of black South Africans during this period of societal transformation. A person of mixed race himself, West photographed in the country's communities of color-townships, squatter camps and other locations. (left: Arniston, 1999, from the project Casting Shadows, digitally printed color photograph)

As the exhibition's title suggests, shadow is used within the images as a metaphor for the shifting visibility of the black population during this period of political and cultural change. Shot with high-speed film and digitally printed on drawing paper, the images have a rich pointillist texture and the depth of ink on paper. Formally, they blend the authenticity of full-frame street photography with a reductivist aesthetic. In their narrative, they reveal the subtle power of everyday activities to illuminate a moment in the culture's transformation. Within the shallow stage of the picture plane, the viewer enters a space in which people, place, and shadow each play a seminal role.

The shadow is itself an animate and sometimes mythic presence with the power to both define or obscure. The metaphor of the shadow extends well into the country's history "For example," West explains,"Soweto is nicknamed the Shadow City, referring pejoratively to its exclusively black population, while reinforcing the concept that blacks are seen as shadows of the white minority." (left: Blou Muur, 1999, from the project Casting Shadows, digitally printed color photograph)

West's interest in South Africa is multifaceted and his participation with the communities he photographed helped him gain the confidence of the inhabitants, bringing greater authenticity to his portrayals. West taught photography classes in the townships and urban areas, and he continues to work to improve the lives of the people in those locations. "I came to South Africa, acknowledging that I was an outsider," West remarked. "Without a respectful commitment to the people in the community, my presence would rightly be seen as an intrusion into lives already scarred by governmental policy. In contrast to those who came to the country and saw the polarities of black and white, I saw a country rich in variation. And so my choice to photograph in color is in recognition of a South Africa that is multi-hued, multi-faceted." West's interest in portraying the rich polyglot nature of South African society is also captured in the titles of the works, which utilize four of the country's eleven official languages.

While this occasion marks the first major exhibition of Casting Shadows in the United States, this body of work has been shown extensively in South Africa as a prelude to its American debut. West, an associate professor in the School of Art & Design, has had work shown, collected, and published internationally by such institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago, Polaroid Corporation, the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, WIDE Gallery, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the San Francisco Art Institute. His recent and upcoming exhibitions include shows at the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Essay by Carole McNamara, Assistant Director for Collections and Exhibitions


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