Two worlds meet with shopping centre exhibition

Nový Smíchov (New Smíchov) bills itself as “the five-star shopping centre”. The “new” in its name isn’t perhaps so hyperbolic, given that it really has played a large role in the last decade’s gentrification of Smíchov, which was traditionally a rather grimy, working class part of Prague.

More than that, Nový Smíchov – one of the country’s most successful shopping centres – is in some ways emblematic of the modern-day Czech Republic, a country where there are more malls per head than elsewhere in the region and where many have embraced wholeheartedly the modern consumer lifestyle.

Among the expensive polo shirts, “Emporio” cafés and Swarovski jewellery, the shopping centre is at the moment home to an exhibition of black-and-white photographs by František Dostál, a self-taught amateur who nevertheless occupies a significant position in Czech photography.

Like Dostál’s other work, the exhibition, entitled Letní lidé (Summer People), captures regular folk in ordinary situations, documentary-style. Taken between 1968 and 1990, the pictures show people of all ages unwinding in the Czech countryside in the latter half of the communist era.

Subjects include pudgy men in snug swimming trunks mucking about by the water, babičky in headscarves, sweaty looking rocker types with lots of facial hair and home-made tattoos, large women sunbathing at their cottages, lots of dogs, and even a goat kid that the funniest man in the village has put sitting on a wooden table in a beer garden. And pivo is a common theme – heavy dimpled glass půllitr tankards seem to be in every suntanned hand.

Several of František Dostál’s photos have been blown up very large indeed and hang from the high ceiling of the Nový Smíchov shopping centre. The pictures are simply unavoidable to those visiting designer denim shops or the international chain health club on the same floor as the multiplex cinema charging 10 dollars or more for movies like Sex and the City.

The contrast between the old school, warts-and-all subjects of the photos and the typical habitués of the air-conditioned Nový Smíchov is marked to say the least. In fact, you’d almost think they were two different races. Many of the latter no doubt prefer mojitos to sudsy beer steins, top up their tans at the solarium and are dressed head to toe in branded gear at the gym. If they’ve got tattoos, they’re probably in Japanese.

I’d be interested to know what the brightly dressed modern shoppers make of the black-and-white “Summer People” currently looking down on them in their cocktail bars and nail shops. And I’d like to buy a beer – or even a mojito – for whoever had the idea of mounting the exhibition.