Neville Gabie was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1959, and studied in the UK in the 1980s. In 1998, he began photographing football pitches and goalposts around the world - from makeshift poles or markings sprayed on walls to sophisticated stadiums - they were published as a book: Posts. During a residency at Tate Liverpool in 1999, Gabie created a series related to the Posts photographs. The result was the portfolio Playing Away; a series of twenty-four prints. The first twelve prints (which Nqutu is one of), show images of pitches and goalposts, mainly in South Africa. On the contents page of the portfolio Gabie notes that it marks ‘South Africa’s first ever qualification to the World Cup Finals at France 1998’. Many are simply wooden goalposts standing in undeveloped desert or mountain areas: the simple structures contrasting with and framing the impressive scenery. The photographs of these ad-hoc pitches may comment on the wealth and opportunity that the sport generates around the world, and the disparity between that wealth and the majority of people playing the game. Beneath the photographs Gabie has added the name of each location and notes about the condition and size of the pitch and goalposts (regulation posts are 8ft high and 24ft wide). The screenprinted text accompanying the arid pitch at Nqutu reads:
“Pitch, severely sloping and rutted and worn, particularly around the goalmouths. Beware of grazing animals. Goalposts are in a poor state. One is missing a crossbar, the other dips badly in the middle. Goalposts almost regulation size 7ft10 x 23ft8.
The twelfth print in this group shows a lush, green pitch in Agincourt, France. Agincourt was the site of the battle between English and French armies in 1415 immortalised in William Shakespeare’s play Henry V. Henry V examines honour and chivalry in warfare, comparing the rules and etiquette of sport with those of battle and exploring the complexity of nationhood and national allegiance. The last twelve prints in the portfolio show a sketch of a football pitch, which Gabie found on a street pavement in Durban. They also each have the phrase ‘dribble and pass’ in one of the eleven official South African languages and a quotation from Henry V. In sequence, prints 13 to 24 add mark by mark to the image, cumulatively building up the pitch markings, with the quotations added in the order that they appear in the play. The final print in the portfolio reveals the complete image of the football pitch and has the French phrase ‘La Partie est Jouée’ which means ‘the hand has been played’ or ‘the game is over’. With this series, Gabie draws parallels between the battlefield as the traditional site of racial conflict and the modern football field which has become a sanctioned ground of national competition. Sport (particularly global competitions like the football World Cup), allows a focus and creates symbols for national identity, and South Africa’s inclusion in the 1998 World Cup spoke of the country’s new unity. By using all eleven official South African languages in this series, Gabie also reveals the complexity of national identity and unity.