Russia and South Africa: A weird, wonderful friendship

'Come and See' by director Elem Klimov is one of the Russian offerings on the NAF programme this year.

This year, the film and Think!fest sections of the National Arts Festival have a particularly Russian flavour. With a “focus on Russia”, the Embassy for the Russian Federation has partnered with NAF to bring a host of films and speakers as well as a photographic exhibition by Mikhail Petrakov, the Russian Ambassador to South Africa.

This exhibition interested me since it it featured Moscow, Robben Island and the Cape Wheel, three seemingly incongruous subjects.

Well that is exactly what they are, incongruous.

While I don’t want to make fun of Mr Petrakov’s work (mostly because I would still like to be allowed into Russia at some point) this exhibition was really quite funny.

The collection of photos of Moscow were beautiful, but still, Moscow in the winter is not particularly original stuff.

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The photos did move on to less freezing images of the city. While the photographer clearly wanted to broaden the scope of representations of Russia these brought to mind the early work of Rhodes photojournalism students.


Then it got a bit odd: the next set of images showed “Robben Island as the prisoners might’ve seen it”. Now, when I read this in the programme I’m not entirely sure what I expected but what I got were a whole lot of stock standard touristy Robben Island images which almost looked like the original images’ negatives.

While I know Nelson Mandela struggled with his eyesight because of the limestone quarries I would be very interested if he saw Robben Island with X-ray vision. (1)

This part was meant to relate to the friendship between South Africa and Russia and how the Ambassador clearly has love for both countries.

Which is why it puzzled me that his next set of photos were of the Cape Wheel. For those who have not yet been to Cape Town the Cape Wheel is a mini-London eye. It is the feature of every Capetonian and tourists’ Instagram feed and can’t be considered anything special to Cape Town (especially since it has been shipped all around the world for various events).


At the end of the exhibition, visitors are asked to write down their thoughts. While I have been fairly scathing about this arbitrary exhibition, it is clear that Petrakov does enjoy his photography. Why it is on exhibition is still not entirely clear.




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