George Hallett: mentor, teacher, creative inspiration
George Hallett is gone. He left this world on Wednesday 1 July. The news was made public on social media by his daughter Maymoena Hallett. George had been ill for a few years. Overtime, his daughter, family, and friends, joined forces to support him in these difficult times and keep him as comfortable as possible. But with his health deteriorating, it was only a matter of time before he’d bid us farewell. His death leaves an emptiness that I cannot yet grasp, but I’m also full of memories of moments spent with him.
George was first introduced to my family in 1986 by my older sister who was friends with many South African exiles in Paris and London. He was a lively character and he certainly brought joy to our family gatherings.
Like our friend Lorna de Smidt before him, he contributed to introduce South African culture, including food (he was an excellent cook!), within our Cameroonian circle. He was extremely well read – only later did I learn about his English literature teacher Richard Rive (1931-1989), and his reading of all the African writers books for which he designed the covers. Casual conversations with him were lessons on Negritude and Black Consciousness. He kept on saying to me and my younger sister: ‘Black is Beautiful’. He wanted us to be proud of our blackness and to refuse the stereotype in which mainstream media, the white media, portrayed us. This is reflected in his photography. He hated negative depictions of Black people. He wanted to uplift us with his images.
Without realising it, I absorbed a lot of his teachings as a teenager. I was also fascinated about the struggle against Apartheid through his stories, that of his friends, or other South Africans I would meet through him and my sister. I only had a school level of English as a teen but I could feel the passion in their words. They also exposed me to the idea that arts and culture were means of political awareness and weapons against oppression.
My interest in photography came much later. George was working in South Africa when I decided to buy my first camera in the early 90s. I had been with him on so many occasions when he was taking pictures that the basics were already in place. When he came back to France he gave me a technical course and taught me black and white printing. I also followed him during my visits to Cape Town and was with him when he worked on some of his ‘New South Africa’ series, notably in Bo-Kaap.
George taught me about light, aperture, speed and composition. He mostly shot in natural light which is something I picked upon. He also told me about the connection between photographer and photographed subject. He always had his camera with him, ready to seize what Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he liked to quote, called ‘the decisive moment’. He would capture these moments as they happened. Whenever he would make anyone pose, he wanted them to think about how they wanted to be portrayed, how they wanted the world to see them. Today as an art writer and curator, my ‘reading’ of photography and visual arts is largely informed by what he taught me.
Whether a commission or personal project, he always had a sense that his images were about telling our history and that he was creating an archive for the future. This is something that was consistent throughout, from his District Six series in the late 1960s, to his images of the new democracy which, he knew, had to be documented. These were Images of Change just like he titled his book.
Probably the most important piece of advice he gave me when he was teaching me was: “if you want to practice photography, you also need to look at other art forms.” This is something that has stayed with me to this day. It is actually what led me to study art history in the mid-1990s and progressively switch from photography to art writing. Naturally, after having encountered seminal figures like Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993), George, and other artists that I had not met but whose work I was aware of – like his friends Peter E. Clarke (1929-2014) and Gavin Jantjes – I focused on South African modern and contemporary art.
After graduating and getting my first job in the cultural field in 2000, I reconnected with him. I was not yet a curator but I knew his work deserved more exposure and I told him I hoped that one day I could exhibit it. The first exhibition I ever curated was ‘George Hallett: Memories of Exiles’ in 2005, at the (defunct) Spitz Gallery in London as part of Africa 05 – UK’s year-long festival of African arts and culture. I invited George to come to London for the opening and to give a talk. Seeing that I was serious about researching and promoting his work, he would often give me prints. He also asked me to represent him in Europe. Having chosen not to mix my vocation as an art historian and curator with the role of an agent, I have gathered George’s photographs in the form of a research collection currently housed at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)’s Centre for Contemporary Art, as part of the Making Histories Visible project led by the artist and Professor of Contemporary Art Lubaina Himid CBE RA.
A selection from this collection was recently presented at the BIC Project Space (Casablanca) in the exhibition ‘George Hallett: sound . text . image’ that opened end of February but then had to remain closed because of the global lockdown. In 2018, I lent some of his Nelson Mandela photographs to BOZAR (Brussels), as part the worldwide Nelson Mandela Centenary Celebrations. In 2016, he was included in ‘Murder Machine’, the group exhibition I curated, exploring the role of language in the colonial process, at Ormston House (Limerick) for EVA International – Ireland’s contemporary art biennale which artistic director was Koyo Kouoh. The year before, we lent some of his African literature-themed prints to ‘The Chimurenga Library’, the project co-curated by Chimurenga, Otolith Collective and The Showroom (London). He was also in my exhibition ‘Residual: Traces of the Black Body’, with images of District Six, at New Art Exchange (Nottingham), as part of FORMAT Photography Festival. In 2013, we lent prints to the Institute of International Visual Arts (London) on the occasion of ‘Peter Clarke: Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats’ curated by Tessa Jackson and Riason Naidoo. In 2010, gallerist and art dealer Ayo Adeyinka facilitated the showcase of George’s portraits of South African artists at Bonhams (London) at one of their first South African sales organised by Hannah O’Leary and Giles Peppiatt, a sale that launched the new wave of contemporary African art sales in Western auction houses.
The decision to dedicate my academic research to George’s photography practice is largerly motivated by the observation that, in many respects, his work remains under-acknowledged. Considering the vast body of work he has produced internationally over four or five decades, he should have had more exposure after his retrospective ‘A Nomad’s Harvest’ co-curated by the late Pam Warne and Joe Dolby at Iziko – South African National Gallery in 2014. This exhibition should have toured nationally and internationally. I know that, to some, he wasn’t always an easy person to work with. But his photographs are of unparalleled historical stature and they deserved more attention from the art and photography world.
There is so much more that still has not been written, that still has not been shown. Every time I visited George, he showed me something I had never seen before. When I was younger, I saw some of his fashion photographs that, I think, have only been exhibited once in Amsterdam in the late 1980s. Beyond portraiture, he developed a body of artistic images ranging from still lifes to abstract forms. His covers for Heinemann’s African Writers Series, the South African jazz records sleeves for Ogun label, and the books he designed, expand his creative practice beyond the field of photography.
Two years ago, I traveled to Cape Town because George was not answering his phone nor emails, which was unusual for him. Maymoena had informed me he was ill. I booked a B&B one street away from his. It took many attempts before he finally let me in. I told him I was around if he needed anything. We talked family and photography. He pulled out a box of 18×24 black and white prints with my name on it. They are test prints of what we called ‘The English work’, photographs he took when he lived in England in the 1970s. It is a pending exhibition project begun with Pete James, Curator of Photography Collections at the Library of Birmingham who sadly passed away in 2018. But first, he said, ‘I need to focus on my health’.
George died in his sleep on Wednesday 1 July. In her statement, Maymoena wrote: “We will always remember him for his light, his laughter, his boisterous personality, his outrageous jokes and being the life and soul of many a party.” That’s how I want to remember him. To me, his images of District Six, South African jazz musicians, artists, intellectuals and activists, African writers, British society, dignified farmers in the Pyrenees, Black creatives in the States, life in Amsterdam… and the ‘New South Africa’, go side by side with his tandoori chicken, his fricadelles, his laughter, very loud music, his dance moves, the heated discussions (even arguments) with his dear friends who loved him nonetheless, photographic promenades, looking and seeing, and the many stories he shared with us.
George, you’re finally at peace. You’re gone but you’re still here, in our hearts, and in all your images that we’ll continue to share with the world.
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