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Petrol Pump, Sesfontein, Namibia
Margaret Courtney Clarke
Artwork 2017
Installation photograph from ‘Crossing Night: Regional Identities x Global Context’ exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. On the left, Margaret Courtney Clarke’s photograph ‘Petrol Pump, Sesfontein, Namibia’ is mounted on the wall. In the middle, Robin Rhode’s video ‘The Moon is Asleep’ is displayed on a screen sitting on a plinth. On the right, Athi-Patra Riga’s photograph ‘The Naivety of Beiruth’ is mounted on the gallery wall.
Installation view: Crossing Night | Regional Identities x Global Context curated by Josh Ginsburg, Jova Lynne and Larry Ossei-Mensah in Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, October 25, 2019–February 2, 2020. Image courtesy of Clare Gatto.
Artist Margaret Courtney Clarke Title Petrol Pump, Sesfontein, Namibia Date 2017 Materials Pigment inks on Hahnemuhle photo rag Dimensions 74.5 x 112 cm

In 2008, Courtney-Clarke returned to her native Namibia to recover from an illness. In her sorties into the desert, which grew increasingly ambitious as her health improved, Courtney-Clarke photographed the landscape and the people passing through it, living in its “seeming nothingness and unparalleled light.” The bleak emptiness of the landscape and the precarity of the lives that play out against it proved a compelling subject. Collected under the title Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain, Courtney-Clarke’s Namibian photographs map “this space, these people, my place among them, and my existence at this time of my life.” The uncertainty of her own health – her new fragility, perhaps – lends this photo-essay its emotional acuity. It is, she writes, a reflection on “the bare circumstances of ordinary women and men forced to negotiate life,” and a supplication to life’s persistence.

Drawn to the symbolic resonance of shelters, Margaret Courtney-Clarke has long documented expressions of belonging across the African continent, from Ndebele homesteads to Berber communities, Mauritanian houses and dwellings in Ghana. She takes as subject the continent’s diverse decorative traditions, where object and building are reimaged as canvas. As documents, her photographs have assumed the responsibility of archive, capturing vanishing vernacular forms and old customs eclipsed by globalism’s ineluctable spread. Indeed, Courtney-Clarke’s work has become as much a celebration of the decorative arts, as it is an elegy to its slow fading. The ways of life she photographed were “disappearing rapidly, as if a door – synchronized to my shutter speed – was closing after each exposure.” Her images, however, are without nostalgia for an imagined past idyll. Instead, she attains, as fellow photographer David Goldblatt wrote, “a searing grace which is in no sense false to the reality but is, on the contrary, a rare synthesis of what is there with an intensely heightened and uncompromisingly honest vision.”