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Pieter Hugo at Yossi Milo Gallery

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday September 8, 2011

The Fall art season that launches tonight in Chelsea is poised for a sensational moment, judging from the preview visits I made to a number of galleries yesterday afternoon. Perhaps the most compelling, from a human perspective, is Pieter Hugo’s recent view of isolated societies in Africa, at Yossi Milo Gallery.

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Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, 2010. From the series Permanent Error. Copyright Pieter Hugo, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery.

Permanent Error, the title of this body of work, depicts the people who work in Agbogbloshie, a massive dump-site for technological waste on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital city. Their job is to dismantle and burn the components to extract bits of copper, brass, aluminum and zinc for resale.

While it is illegal, globally, to traffic in the resale of this type of toxic refuse, the sheer amounts of material that threatens to consume the consumers who originally purchased the items has resulted in a black market revenue stream that threatens to destroy the most vulnerable societies in Africa and elsewhere.

According to the press release, tons of outdated and broken computers, computer games, mobile phones and other e-waste are shipped to the area as “donations” from the West, under the guise of providing technology to developing countries. Rather than helping to bridge the digital divide, however, the equipment is transformed into noxious trash threatening the health of the area’s inhabitants and contaminating the water and soil.

In the large-scale prints on view, Hugo’a style in coloration, which involves an almost monochrome tonality that capitalize on a cool, purple cast, has never better emphasized the cruel conditions in which these young men and women from impoverished families toil. The subjects are clearly engaged with the photographer’s mission, or perhaps more plainly, with his empathy. When Hugo asked the inhabitants what they called the pit where the burning takes place, they repeatedly responded: 'For this place, we have no name'. One after another seeks Hugo’s gaze; in their eyes, we observe something we most likely have never – or will ever – experience for ourselves.

Hugo never goes for shock value in the conditions he finds in Agbogbloshie, and in Permanent Error, his restraint is underscored through his depictions of farm animals who have become fatally enmeshed by this toxic landscape. Their inevitable peril is perhaps more evident than that of their human minders. Signed copies of the book, Permanent Error (Prestel 2011) are available at the gallery, and also at a book signing at Dashwood Books on Friday from 6 to 8 pm.

Opening reception for the artist, Thursday, September 8, 6-8 pm. Yossi Milo Gallery, 525 West 25th Street, NY, NY.

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