Without life to fill them, the schools in Kirsten Mackrill‘s photographic series become eerily empty institutions. As places that have connotations of noise and chaos, stomping school shoes and slamming lockers, the feeling of absence is felt all the more keenly. School Portraits captures the unique character of these deserted places, and a sense of the masses that move through them. The project speaks to her own cultural heritage, but also to a particular political narrative: she aims to situate these schools in the context of history, specifically in the anti-apartheid struggle. Their emptiness can be held in contrast with the chaos and fervour of previous decades, and speaks to the legacy left by these years. Holding the viewer simultaneously in the past and the present, the images become liminal spaces, capturing a sense of South Africa’s shifting contemporary narratives.
With a degree in fine art from Michaelis, Kirsten has always been interested in expressing herself through visual media. Her photography reflects a penchant for well composed images, symmetry and straight lines. She describes her style as formal and clean, but emphasises the importance of atmosphere in a photograph. It is through this invoked mood that she seeks to establish a connection with her viewer.
The images in this series capture the interiors of varying high schools across Cape Town. On one level, the condition of the empty interiors reflect how these spaces are utilised by the people inhabiting them. Switching between distant shots of school exteriors, empty halls and basketball courts, and small details such as trophy cases and graffiti on the walls, the images reflect a sense of the personal, as well as the institution. The mundanity of the school environment is disrupted by these personal details; the monotony interrupted by traces of human presence. The graffiti covering classroom walls reflects individuals’ desires to assert themselves and leave their mark. This speaks to a typical rebelliousness of youth and hints at the moments of chaos that exist within the presumably controlled space of a high school.
On a broader level, these images also orient the viewer towards a political and historical insight. During apartheid, these schools were classified as “Coloured” and they still speak strongly to the atmosphere of the communities in which they are situated. In her catalogue essay, Kirsten reflects: “The types of resources that are present in these schools suggest broader images of their surroundings, both physically and metaphorically”. These spaces can be seen as visual analogies of larger society. The emptiness of these spaces can then be held in contrast to documentary photography of student movements during apartheid – the Soweto Uprisings in particular. The gap between the history of schools and their current state speaks to the debris of what apartheid has left behind and how the South African landscape has evolved from it.
Considering art as a means for interrogating social realities, we asked Kirsten what she thought of the current art scene in South Africa. Her response: “It’s a difficult sphere just because African art has such a stigma attached to what’s expected of art making here. A certain level of “authenticity” is expected of African artists, but I think it’s important as young creatives to be able to challenge and rework ideas of what contemporary art from South Africa and Africa should be”. She left us with some advice she’d been given while studying: “Listen to criticism, but in the end know what you stand for and what you want your work to stand for, you’re making it for your own expression and not for someone else”.