An arty afternoon


We had a cultured Sunday, browsing a very varied selection of art exhibitions in Oxford. Our first visit was to an exhibition of David Goldblatt's photographs of 51 years of South African life at Modern Art Oxford (at the Museum of Modern Art). I've seen one or two of his photographs before, but this is a huge exhibition and really shows the range of his art. Although he has clearly always been against apartheid, and angered by injustice, these are subtle photographs. There are no images of riots or violence — the closest we get to an explicit depiction is a photo of a young black man with both arms in plaster after he was assaulted by the police — but nevertheless, the tensions are visible everywhere. A series of pictures taken at road intersections, with crowds of people waiting to cross, show the subtle dynamics of ordinary people enduring South Africa under apartheid.

Two pictures in particular will stick in my memory: in one, a middle-aged, smartly dressed black man sits on a pile of rubble that was once his house but has been bulldozed to make way for a 'whites only' housing zone. The other photo is part of a series taken on the buses taking black workers from their townships to areas that actually had employment. Most people spent 8 hours a day just commuting, starting their day at 2am, and not returning until 10pm. One picture taken on the bus is blurry and grainy (as it was taken in the ambient light), but this is totally appropriate to the utter exhaustion and resignation of the workers, who are trying desperately to get some sleep as the bus bumps along.

The depressing thing about this exhibition is that the injustice doesn't really go away: it just changes from one type of inequality to another. In the most recent photographs, David shows a new housing, office and leisure complex (modelled — surreally — on a Tuscan village). In one shot from a distance, you see the neat and substantial homes in the background and, on the other side of a patch of open ground, a ramshackle collection of shanty homes made of polythene and scrap wood.

The other exhibitions were less powerful, but still interesting. We went to the Christ Church picture gallery to see the permanent collection of Renaissance paintings, but also some contemporary prints made by a local society. Then we trotted north to The Ashmolean Museum for an exhibition of Japanese and Chinese paintings, which were delicate and subtle evocations of nature and humanity in harmony.

We had thought about going to London to visit some galleries, but we saved four hours on the bus and a lot of money by staying local. Incredibly, with all the great art we saw, we only had to pay £2 for the whole day. Well, that doesn't include the beer, but still... Oxford isn't a bad place sometimes.