Steyn du Toit talks to photographer Gordon Clark, about his latest exhibition, Groot Geraak. The exhibition focuses on three years in the life of Quentino, a young boy growing up in Elsies River on the Cape Flats.
Ayoung boy holds a tyre up- right with two pieces of wood. The graffiti on the wall behind him reads “BAD”. His name is Quentino. He lives in Elsies River on the Cape Flats. He’s six.
Over the next three years Quentino will be revisited by pho- tographer Gordon Clark. Together they will attempt to communicate his social circumstances and to lo- cate defining moments in the boy’s formative years. The result is Groot Geraak (became big) – an exhibi- tion reflecting on Quentino’s lived reality, complete with portents of his possible future.
“There are 600 000 Numbers gang members in the Western Cape,” explains Clark. He previ- ously explored related aspects of this community in his exhibitionsWho Am I? – Transgressions and The Outcome of Turner Adams, as well through The Lucky Man, a film based on the life of former gangster Ernie “Lastig” Solomon.
“All these people have a shot at in life is what they’ve got in front of them. We have to accept that. Prison is where young men go to get a number. Where one goes to be- come somebody. When you come out you have an identity.
“No government and no politi- cian is doing anything to uplift the communities where they grow up in. And neither are the rest of us. Why? Because in our middle to upper class mindsets we con- sider these people to be lost already anyway.”
As a result, children like Quentino are merely the latest in a group of people being reborn into the same life over and over again. As the exhibition’s title suggests, they then simply grow into the en- vironment that they are raised in.
This becomes evident when looking at King of the Hill, a photo- graph showing a young man smok- ing a bottelkop (marijuana stuffed into a broken beer bottle’s nozzle)
on top of a shed.
Striking a statuesque, almost iconic pose, another young man is seen sitting on the ground
physically and figuratively looking up at him.
“I first met Quentino in 2009. At the time he was hanging around an older boy named Wes, who was later sent to prison for a firearm- related crime.
“The next time I ran into Quentino, he was hanging around another boy, Bushie. Both Wes and Bushie can be seen in Groot Ger- aak, as well as some other boys of Quentino’s age.”
Similar to King of the Hill, On the Edge is another photograph de- picting a young man smoking a bot- telkop. This time, however, it is Bushie. He is sitting in front of a
large mural depicting a shark at- tacking a swimmer. Quentino, now older than when we first saw him, is seen standing on the photo’s pe- riphery looking at Bushie.
“These are the individuals the younger children look up to. They see the older boys standing on the street corners wearing fancy shoes, with a little bit of money in their pockets and eating KFC. Seeing them evokes two kinds of feelings in younger boys like Quentino.
“Firstly, they want to be like these older boys because not only do they stay alive, but they seem to do so with a perceived luxurious lifestyle. And secondly, they want to be like their older peers because they see that as an identity. This identity translates to being a man and being accepted in society.”
A brown suitcase frequently ap- pears throughout the exhibition. With the text, Tony Clark, painted on it in white, it can be seen on a flight of stairs in Big Russ, Bushie, Quentino, Little Russ in the Hood, lying on the lap of a community caregiver in Family and even dou- bling up as a makeshift cradle in Evolution.
“The suitcase belonged to my brother, Tony. He painted his name on it so that he wouldn’t lose it while travelling. I featured the suit- case in Groot Geraak because of several reasons. The first is be- cause it symbolises identity, ie ‘I want people to know who I am, hence my name is on it.’
“The second speaks to the metaphor of baggage. And thirdly, it is to draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that the shots are staged. The emotion and message these im- ages depict, however, isn’t staged and is derived from the authentic settings and people they capture.”
Fifty percent of Groot Geraak’s sales will go to Quentino and his family.
When walking through the exhi- bition, Clark asks that viewers con- sider the politics of representation as well as society’s persistent racial and class divides.
“Look at yourself in terms of how you interpret these images, whether it be with sympathy or with judgement. Ask yourself, how did you get to be where you are in your life? Then, how did Quentino get to be where he is?
“One’s actions are learned in one’s environment. Think about how you interact with people, how you earned/inherited your money as well as your ethics when doing business. How did growing up in your environment shape you into the person you are today?”
Now 10 years of age and recently moved with his family to Blikkiesdorp (a temporary relocation area in Delft, Cape Town), there’s no telling how Quentino’s life will play out in the coming years.
However, one of the last images in the exhibition, called Evolution, shows him as a pubescent and pointing a gun at Bushie’s back. They are standing in between a pair of shacks and in the back- ground a newborn baby can be seen alongside men smoking dagga and drinking beer.
“This picture encompasses everything. Notice the look on Bushie’s face. This is a callous world where the average lifespan is- n’t even 40. One where children will kill their own fathers and vice versa. Whatever it takes to tem- porarily become the big guy.”