João Ferreira

Araminta de Clermont

03 - 27 Sep 2008

© Araminta de Clermont
Omar, 2007
Epson Ultrachrome on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag 308gm
60 x 43.5 cm
Edition of 12
"Life After"

3 - 27 September 2008
Opening reception: Wednesday 3 September at 6pm

This body of work, undertaken between April 2007 and April 2008, started as the documentation of a cultural phenomenon: the “chappies” of the notorious South African Numbers Gangs, the 26s, 27s and 28s.
These prison tattoos are, I believe, works of art and culturally significant in their own right, being the preferred art-form of an especially disenfranchised and marginalised group.
These are not designer tattoos.
Rather, they are tattoos whose pigments are typically produced from ground up rubbish bins, batteries, or bricks. Each conveys a message (as with the gallows symbol, a mark that the wearer faced the death sentence), a gradation in the hierarchy of the Number, or sometimes a rather more personal statement or tribute.
Some prisoners go as far as covering their whole body, including the face, with these “chappies”. The motives behind such a drastic action fascinated me. Is it about a need to belong, or does it simply reflect an absolute immersion in “The Number”? Do the tattoos create an armour of anonymity, or do they instead offer a voice, a potent form of self-expression? And then there is perhaps the most pertinent question of all: how does someone live with such branding after their prison sentence ends?
In jail, my subjects are considered to be “Kings”. Once freed, their tattoos stigmatize them as dangerous criminals, evoking fear in the general public. Unable to get jobs, many become homeless ‘strollers’, suffering high levels of substance abuse.
And so I found my subjects in Cape Town’s hidden places: homeless shelters, broken down tenement blocks, back alleys, soup kitchens, bus stations and township shebeens. I photographed them wherever them I found them, always in their own environments. As I worked, I became more and more interested in the relationship between the mythology, even glamour, of the Number and the actual humanity of my subjects. Many more questions were raised for me, including the choices we make in life and the prices we pay for them. I also found myself wondering how it would be if we all had our past mistakes permanently emblazoned across our faces.
Perhaps I felt a particular natural affinity with my subjects because I struggled through a long-term addiction to heroin and crack (though I have been clean for over 4 years). During my drug use, my face became covered in “crack sores”; my lips were burnt and scarred liquorice-black. Like my subjects I too faced casual judgement, when people looked at my appearance believing they automatically knew me - and walked away.

- Araminta de Clermont

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