The truth is out there.

Peter Machen spoke to artist and photographer Peter Engblom, whose work is currently on show at ArtSpace Durban.

Peter Engblom dances like the crazy man he is along that fine and inescapable line that separates history from myth, facts from reality. It is a line that is of course constantly moving and shifting, and in Engblom’s case it is one that is defined by the thin dotted-lines that defines selections of images in Photoshop, the photo-imaging program.

A friend of mine is studying quantity surveying at DIT and a lecturer asked the students one day if any of them knew why Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned. No-one in the class of young adults knew. Not treason. Not Rivonia. Nothing. They should have gone to the internet to find out, like Peter Engblom suggested to his DIT fine art photography class.

“Go”, he said, “to the internet, “and find out everything you can about Zulu masks”. His class returned, duly diligent, with reams of information about Zulu masks. “Now throw it all away”, said Engblom, “because Zulu masks do not exist.”

A museum designer by profession and a former yacht-broker by trade, Engblom is also the man responsible for the now infamous Zulu Sushi series of images, in which he tells the story of Mpunzi Shezi, the first Zulu missionary who went to Japan at the turn of the century and brought back Zen to the Zulus. It is of course a load of horse-shit, but Engblom has constructed his protagonist’s world so convincingly that a certain woman who is not too fond of him, commented that Mpunzi Shezi is so interesting, it’s just a pity that Peter Engblom discovered him.

He who laughs loudest is sometimes on his way to the bank.

Engblom’s latest project, one of several, is entitled Retro Girls. And it involves an extraordinarily clever little conceit that is at once as light as a feather and with sufficient depth to incorporate his own truth and reconciliation committee, the construction of the female body by gay men, the erasure of apartheid and the overriding contemporary desire to consume that may well end up consuming us all.

What he has done is reconstruct 50’s style prints ads for old South African products which were pandering to the emerging post-war middle class. Except, he’s replaced the original white models with black women. And in the process, he deletes apartheid with the click of a mouse, providing an advertising image of South Africa that might have existed if Verwoerd had not had his dirty way.

To add to things, Engblom used his own mother’s body for many of the images, recolouring her limbs and replacing her face with that of a young black woman. His mother was actually a clothing model, or mannequin as they used to be called in the 50’s. And one of the women whose face features so seamlessly is Portia, a local singer with an extraordinary voice and a massive presence who fronts the oddly-named rock band Loure. Portia is a beautiful example of the new generation of young South African women. She bristles with confidence, and is determined to do things her way, so she is the perfect choice for Engblom. And of course she becomes, in a bizarre sense, Engblom’s surrogate mother, the past and the future coming together in his manic head and finally arriving in a frame on a gallery wall in semi-industrial Durban.

Then there is the exploration of the representation of the female body. Engblom and I have often spoken about how the patriarchy, responsible for so much bad shit, has nonetheless been falsely accused of giving modern women impossibly high body standards. The blame for that must go to the gay men who have populated post-war media and fashion, and who have relentlessly sought to reduce the female body to that of a post-adolescent boy.

Straight men on the other hand like a bit of flesh, and for most of them, even advertising isn’t strong enough to change the fact that a generous ass tends to hypnotise the male gaze. At the same time, as contemporary desires fuel a reality built in the impossibly perfect world of Photoshop, the young black female body in South Africa has changed substantially in the last decade. The archetypal mama has slimmed down as body shapes, along with fashion, music and consumables move towards a point of generic convergence, and anorexia and bulima spread their bile into African society.

So check out Retro Girls, when perfect women still had curves. It’s another world very much like this one. And even if you don’t give a flying anything about art or meaning, the pictures will make you smile.


Peter Engblom’s Retro Girls opens at the Muti Gallery at 44 Stanley on the tenth of November at 7pm


All retrogitl prints are A3 and printed on archival paper with ultrachrome epson ink and cost R3000.00
excluding postage and vat. The panorama is 91cm wide and costs R3700 ex postage and vat.
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