M. Neelika Jayawardane reviews the International Center for Photography’s “Rise and Fall of Apartheid
by M. Neelika Jayawardane
The International Center for Photography (ICP) is located in the heart of Manhattan, at the corner of West 43rd Street and the Avenue of the Americas. Times Square’s mirages—brilliant expanses of neon fantasies, some spanning the length of several stories and the breadth of entire city blocks—summon passers-by with images of athletes, models, slick tans and racy footwear. One pictorial legend sponsored by Mormon.org reminds us: “Christmas is Love, Family, Jesus Christ.” Around the corner, the Theatre District’s marquees light up the shadows cast by Midtown Manhattan’s towers. The Lion King, now in its fifteenth year running, has a stretch of window displays dedicated to re-instituting Africa as a place of masks, skins, and noble, half-human animals. West African brothers are selling pashmina scarves, woollen hats, and gloves in street corner stalls; South Asian brothers are dishing out plates of chicken and rice from food trucks. An Elvis, some sort of Disney Princess, and a Winnie the Pooh mingle with giggling tourists, posing for photographs and tips. In an alley between Bank of America’s mighty tower and the ICP, I see an exhausted Mickey Mouse taking a break, his disembodied, smiling mask resting on the concrete. Inside the jolly costume, a thin man: grey hair matted down by the mask, brown skin weathered by the hardships of immigration.
Gille de Vlieg, ‘Pauline Moloise (mother of Ben), two women & Winnie Madikizela Mandela mourn at the Memorial Service for Benjamin Moloise, who was hanged earlier that morning. Khotso House, Johannesburg, October 18, 1985’. © Gille de Vlieg
As one approaches the ICP, a yellow banner with black lettering—stretching across the length of the ICP’s ground floor windows—announces the exhibition, “Rise and Fall of Apartheid.” By the front entrance, there’s a massive poster of the young Mandela, dapper in a double-breasted suit, a kerchief folded neatly in his pocket, and a parting combing a straight arrow through his hair. It’s late afternoon, and people rush by to the Bryant Park subway entrance on the corner, stopping to look only when they see me taking photographs. On the adjacent windows, posters of protestors displaying placards: a crowd of black women and one chubby, white in schoolboy in shorts and shoes stand together, holding signs printed with the legend, “We Stand by Our Leaders.” Another placard declares, “Citibank, You Finance Apartheid.” And a man holding a homemade poster pleads for his love: “My Wife Emma Held 55 Days. Release All Detainees”. The number “55” is enclosed within a black box, drawing attention to his waiting, and her capture. I stood before this image, meditating on that pictograph. Though he must have been engulfed by a fear beyond my experience, this photograph conveyed something of it to me: quiet and constant, resonating across the ocean of unknowability that stands between the viewer and the act of regarding the pain of others.
What does South Africa mean to Manhattan? Here, in Midtown, is it possible to communicate the mundane absurdities of “One of the most repressive and detested political systems ever devised,” among Christmastime homages to consumer capitalism? Can photography translate apartheid, for this audience—one whose bus tickets declare, on the back, that seating on public transport here “is without regard to race, creed, color or national origin”? How will this visual narrative recreate state-level repressions that monitored and circumscribed the minutia of human existence, the segregations made so ordinary in cities, the stultification of small town prejudices, five decades of media repression, and fears so well-founded that one barely permitted a critical comment, even in private? How does one convey that despite all this, people in South Africa did not become victims, that masses of women and men of all ‘racial’ categories came together to protest the regime and its unjust laws—albeit at rare intervals?
Greame Williams, ‘Nelson Mandela with Winnie Mandela as he is released from the Victor Vester Prison’, 1990, Courtesy the artist © Greame Williams
Many Americans 40 and older remember taking part in disinvestment rallies during their heady college years, camping out on their picturesque university lawns to protest university endowments with portfolios that included corporations that continued to do business in South Africa. They may remember an older show of photo essays at the ICP, back in the summer of 1986: “South Africa: The Cordoned Heart” gave “a multiracial group of twenty South African photographers” (including many included in the current exhibition) a chance to show what life was like, behind the violent battles shown on spectacular news stories. It was the first time that most Americans had seen the grueling violence of everyday poverty juxtaposed with the excesses handed to a handful of privileged under apartheid. For my young students, however, there’s less of a connection. They have a place in their minds for Mandela as a global figure whose position in history resonates with that of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. But far more millennials have no reference points to anchor them to events that took place in a far-away country at the southern tip of Africa: here, Africa is Lion King.
Camille Ortiz, the Public Relations Coordinator at the ICP remembers, “As an American, growing up, the system of apartheid is not something that you are really taught. I went to a progressive school, and we read a book. I think it was Sheila Gordon’s novel, Waiting for the Rain.” And even though her Brooklyn school was relatively progressive, the Civil Rights Movement was taught via an introduction to Martin Luther King, without an “in-depth discussion about race.” So the connections between Americans’ experiences and those of South Africans remained in her “peripheral knowledge,” even though she didn’t “know much about it” as a young person. Now, looking back, she “can see that these histories are parallel.” Looking at the protest posters, Ortiz sees that “even the typography used in these signs are like what was used in the ‘I Am a Man’ signs that we had here in America, and that the hand gestures people used during protests are very similar. Our histories are parallel, but we were not really taught that.” She hopes that through the partnerships that the ICP built with local educational institutions, this exhibition will allow educators and students alike to be a part of an “in-depth discussion about apartheid.” Later, I come across some very serious looking students from Fordham University, dutifully taking notes for an introductory African History course. But the museum guards are a bit sceptical: “High school students come, but they were just horsing around here yesterday,” one lamented.
Inside the lobby space, a seated museum guard, discreet in a black suit, monitors the entrance to the exhibit and collects visitors’ tickets as they walk into the first floor exhibition space. Adjacent to his seat, two television monitors play two separate loops of film: one loop is black and white, the other, colour. On closer inspection, I realise that one features D.F. Malan’s victory speech in 1948, after his exclusively Afrikaner Nationalist Party defeated Jan Smuts’ United Party; the twin monitor features F. W. de Klerk’s speech, in February 1990, where he announced that all political parties would be unbanned, and that all political prisoners—including Nelson Mandela—would be released. I take a moment to listen to the two voices. One is celebratory, powerful, looking forward. The other is conciliatory, explanatory, asking his listeners to consider the denouement of their years in absolute power. But it is the billboard-sized image in front of the guard—behind a low wall hiding an escalator transporting visitors down to the basement-level—that catches the visitor’s eye: women standing side by side, holding vertical white signs printed with declamations and demands, forming a neat chain around a monumental city building. From this enlarged image of peaceful protest, organised by members of the Black Sash, and the posters on the windows facing the streets, star curator Okwui Enwezor’s intent is clear: to ensure that the typical ways in which Africans are portrayed as hapless victims are not rehashed here at the ICP. Instead, we see the ways in which South Africans were powerfully engaged as “agents in their own emancipation.”
Enwezor states, in a press release, “What I was principally interested in is the way in which apartheid gave us an image of a political doctrine that transformed from a juridical instrument into a normative reality.” That normative reality is what the show’s subtitle refers to as “the bureaucracy of everyday life.” But does this exhibit show the mundane and the ordinary? My childhood memories of South Africa in the 1980s, on a visit to Johannesburg with my family, are not of stoic, morally upstanding white ladies holding protest placards, nor of unified black and white rows confronting menacing police. What I remember was that the shop ladies at Woolworth’s were surprised that we—an ‘Indian’ family come down from Zambia on what was, essentially, a shopping trip—were present in the heart of Johannesburg, and that we had money to buy dresses there.
Detail of Jürgen Schadeberg’s ‘The 29 ANC Women’s League women are being arrested by the police for demonstrating against the permit laws, which prohibited them from entering townships without a permit, 26th August 1952’. Courtesy the artist.
After visiting the ICP’s exhibition, will American visitors regard those decades as one massive peaceful protest, during which white and black joined hands, came up with clever slogans, made posters in the backrooms of homes, and bravely faced police barricades together? Will framing the experience of apartheid as one massive co-involvement in organised protest create a rosier picture than is true? Without contextualising the system of apartheid as a continuation of segregationist colonial policies instituted by the British as well as the Dutch—without knowledge of the myriad laws that helped create race-based segregation long before the Nation Party came into power, as well as an understanding about how the effects of those laws are fortified by current neo-liberal policies—I suspect that many visitors may view apartheid as something that began in 1948, and ended just as abruptly as it started in 1994. For these voyeurs, will apartheid be just another atrocity that happened in the Dark Continent, something so foreign to their present that they leave the ICP thanking God that it’s not something that has to do with “us”?
I worry, also, that the South Africans expatriates who visit this space are looking for redemption and erasure: when they see this sort of framing of apartheid, in which all are gathered to protest and decry the unjust policies, will it not re-configure the reality of the experience? Public protests happened rarely. For most of those five decades, people didn’t take to the streets, but planned political action in non-spectacular meetings and decades-long negotiations, endured quietly so they could eke out a living (as is evident in David Goldblatt’s images in The Transported of KwaNdebele), or stayed in their cushioned suburbs, braiied at pool parties, and enjoyed the policies that gave them an advantage (evident in Goldblatt’s In Boksburg).
Brian Wallis, the ICP’s Chief Curator, agrees that for Americans, their perspective is from a distance, though they may know more from having been engaged in the anti-apartheid movement as university students. For those who lived in South Africa, however, he believes “this brings back everything that they experienced; they really understand the complexities.” Wallis engaged Enwezor (and Rory Bester, who assisted Enwezor) to organise the exhibition. It was a challenge to organise, even though this exhibition’s focus is confined to a single country, and to a particular time period in African photography; Wallis states that the challenges arose because the exhibition covers some of the most “visible and contested set of issues surrounding apartheid, its institutions, and its dismantling. In some ways, those images from the fifty-year history of apartheid are the most visible—certainly the photo-journalistic images, but also many other images from that period signify, for the general public, their image of African photography.”
Using banner-sized panels of texts—denoting the different decades in apartheid history, as well as smaller panels of text explaining philosophical and political shifts—Enwezor projected a particular perspective that helps direct the visitor; Wallis points out that the ways in which the text panels and photographs work together has implications not only for “the politics of representation and how the uses of photography transformed the anti-apartheid movement,” but “less obviously, how the experience of apartheid led to the generation of what has come to be known as South African photography.” An important part of the exhibition “was to focus not so much on the news stories, or on international photographers or photojournalists who came to the location. [Our intention was] to really to look at South African photographers, both black and white, and to look at their representations of the experiences of the culture of South Africa, and the process of their own development of personal and collective identity.”
Wallis explains that Enwezor was also really intent on presenting the everyday experiences of life under apartheid. What were the cultural conditions, and how did people get by under these circumstances? How was daily life represented, and how was personal experience affirmed through photography? “So a lot of the pictures of occupations, women’s struggles for equal rights, domestic situations or entertainment and parties and at clubs—these are part of the story, too. [They] are neatly represented by Drum magazine, which for me, as an outsider, provided the great civil rights photographs from South Africa, where [Peter] Magubane and [Jurgen] Schadeberg first published their photographs. But when you look at it, it’s an entertainment magazine, and the covers are of all these singers and dancers!” This “unmediated mix of everyday life and political conflict” was what Enwezor and the ICP wanted to get across via this exhibition.
The ICP, though not one of New York City’s mega-museums, is cleverly set up to maximise its exhibition space. Enwezor frames the exhibition via wall-mounted tablets imprinted with lengthy text to help contextualise the history. “Resistance to apartheid was in many ways a resistance to its laws. In the wake of these laws and the systems contrived for their enforcement—what may be called the bureaucratization of everyday life—a well organized, robust resistance movement, comprising South Africans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and political beliefs, mobilized in what became an epic battle,” writes Enwezor on the introductory wall panel. This is not a comprehensive history—the fifty-year struggle “that united workers and trade unions, students and teachers, activists, clergy, artists, writers, photographers, and ordinary people across political, social, racial, and class lines” can’t all be reproduced here. Rather, this exhibit is a “critical interrogation of [apartheid’s] symbols, signs, and representations,” as well as the minor gestures and spectacular uprisings that help us trace “the arc of the resistance.” Together, they help the viewer comprehend the “paradigmatic role played by social and documentary photography” in the struggle against apartheid.
The exhibition comprises of “nearly 500 photographs, films, books, magazines, newspapers, and assorted archival documents and covers more than 60 years of powerful photographic and visual production that forms part of the historical record of South Africa,” and includes nearly seventy photographers’ work: some are well known worldwide, like David Goldblatt, Peter Magubane, Alf Khumalo, and Gideon Mendel; and others who are virtually unknown outside of photography circles, even within South Africa. Enwezor points out that the ambitious scope of the exhibit was one of his aims: “I wanted people to feel suffocated in the exhibition, almost, in the sense that the cumulative effect of what took place in South Africa could not be experienced otherwise.” Along with the photography and mixed media collages and graphic posters, collections of photography books are displayed in glass cases. Rare footage of ITN’s Brian Widlake interviewing a young Mandela in 1961—it remains the only filmed interview of Mandela prior to his imprisonment in 1963; Bou Van’n Nasie (We Build a Nation)—the epic propaganda feature intended to foster Afrikaner nationalism, released in time to coincide with the centenary of the Great Trek in 1938; the 1949 film “African Jim” (“Jim Comes to Jo’Burg”); Merata Mita’s Patu! a documentary record of the mass civil disobedience that took place throughout New Zealand during the winter of 1981, in protest against the South African Springboks’ rugby tour; and even 1985’s protest music video “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” play in continuous loops in different sections of the exhibition, providing a soundtrack to the visual.
The long and complicated story of what happened between 1948 and 1990 is told chronologically, through a multitude of images. The first photographs are images of the Afrikaner National Party’s surprise 1948 victory: Malan, his wife—her otherwise dowdy appearance downplayed by a luxurious length of fur swathed around her neck—attending formal functions, garden parties, meeting foreign dignitaries, signing bilateral agreements and opening factories. These photographs, which document the rituals of power that helped stage a de-historicised civility and create a solid illusion of normalcy, are flanked by sections of photographs depicting the “Defiance Campaign and the Strategy of Non-Cooperation,” “The Black Sash, Performance, and Bearing Witness,” and “The Treason Trial”: Eli Weinberg’s images of Yusuf Cachelia, Yusuf Dadoo, and Walter Sisulu, showing his dompass before burning it; Jurgen Schadeberg’s images of the Defiance Campaign Trials, including one of twenty-nine members of the ANC’s Women’s League, arrested for defying permit laws; Mandela staging himself in beads and royal regalia while hiding out from the police during his period as the “Black Pimpernel”; Peter Magubane’s images of women demonstrating against pass laws; and an unidentified photographer’s image of Peter Magubane being arrested in December, 1956.
The section on “Drum Magazine and the Black Fifties” include Ranjith Kally’s images of Tony Scott performing at the Goodwill Lounge, Gopal Naransamy’s “Variety Concert at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, Bob Gosani’s photographs of a sexy pinup (Lynette Kolati of Western Township, Johannesburg) and countless other unidentified photographers’ fantasies of cover girls and jovial weekend parties. These images sit a few steps away from Billy Monk’s documentation of white rebels and revelry: young men and women, in various stages of undress, meeting in the “Catacombs” for drinking and trysts, defying Afrikaner strictures and moral codes. On the opposite wall: George Hallett’s iconic photographs of everyday scenes from District Six—“Corner Boys” lounging about, the popular Westminster Restaurant, farmworkers in Oakhurst, Hout Bay taking a break, and jazz festivals in Langa Township—are juxtaposed with Noel Watson’s images of police carrying out evictions of black people from newly designated “white” areas, and Hallett’s own photographs of exiles in London, walking together from the Africa Centre on King Street. There’s also a small section of images devoted to Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s visit to South Africa. An enormous crowd gathered to welcome them; one banner reads, simply, “HI BOB.” Those two words communicate the joy of having someone of the Kennedy’s stature comprehend the pressing realities of millions in country an ocean away, connected by the same exuberant desire for recognising common human dignity.
Standing there, enjoying a moment of revelry as I ogle that iconic image of Miriam Makeba (a reverie in her sewn-on-tight dress, straps slipping off to reveal bare shoulders), I see, in the periphery of my vision, a photograph of lined up, stripped naked black miners, arms raised to the air, awaiting medical inspection. These are Ernest Cole’s best-known photographs: people being fingerprinted for their passbooks, surprise passbook raids in townships, handcuffed men arrested for being in a “white area” illegally, and large signs denoting “white” taxi ranks, dry cleaners, and toilets. There are images of separate sets of stairs for whites and non-whites, entrances for “Non-Europeans and goods,” and a black woman scrubbing a “Whites only” stairway.
Around the corner, the section on “Images of Public Protest,” with photographs documenting the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Uprising contains some of the exhibition’s most striking images. A neat row of coffins, flanked by equally neat mourners. It is the funeral held in May 1960, for the 69 black protestors who were killed by police during the Sharpeville massacre. Here, also, is Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Antoinette Sithole and Mbuyiza Makhubo, running, carrying the lifeless body of the twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson, and another of the boy’s body being placed into Nzima’s press vehicle in June 1979. Enwezor’s text panel directs our attention to images of the protest movement, and decodes the shifts in the political mood, as denoted by body and hand gesture: at first, “most of the people there have their thumbs up, and we begin to see very clearly that this was a time when the idea of nonviolent resistance was part of the credo of the movement”; later, this focus on peaceful protest changed at a decisive moment: “by 1960, after the Sharpeville Massacre, the thumbs up—the gesture of solidarity—has turned into a fist, the gesture of resistance, and by 1994 it has turned into a V sign” for the victory that lay close at hand. One does not walk away from these images without understanding why so many in South Africa—and the U.S.—continue to abhor Alsatians, a dog much used by police to take on savage duties, or why dogs continue to be part of the socio-political structures signifying both threat and security. It is the most quiet section of the exhibition—one simply regards, becomes still with feeling.
From here, escalator leads to the lower exhibition spaces. The ride down is flanked by a two-story wall plastered with dozens of photographs of protestors and protest placards: Some commemorate: “Dave Webster Killed by Apartheid,” and “Happy Birthday to Segregation”; others remind powerful global figures that their interference and support helps maintain an evil system: “Maggie, Blood on Your Paws.” Some petition for change: “We Demand an End to Apartheid Education,” while others signal the desire to stand still, remain in apartheid time: “The Bible Proclaims Segregate,” declares the sign, followed by three separate instances in the Christian Bible that supposedly support ‘racial’ separation.
Downstairs, sections devoted to “The State of Emergency and the Fall of Apartheid”: the turbulent 1980s, leading up to Mandela’s release, and the first democratic elections in 1994. Here, Enwezor wanted to underscore the contributions of both South African and international contemporary artists, to show how, during the 1980s in particular, the anti-apartheid movement occupied a world stage. The violent years documented by the “Bang Bang Club”—Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbrook, and João Silva—are here. Also included are prominent international artists like Dan Weiner, Margaret Bourke White, Adrian Piper, Hans Haake and Ian Berry joined South African artists like Jo Radcliffe, “using artistic forms that are based on photography, but not, strictly speaking, what one would think of as photography.” Haake’s “Voici Alcan” (1983), for instance, is a montage of three photographs with plastic letraset, glass and aluminium, together with paper logos set in plexiglass. This is Haake’s critique of one of the world’s largest aluminium producers, Alcan, which has its headquarters in Montreal, Canada; it is a multinational also known for its support of major cultural events in its home province of Quebec—all the while maintaining its large mining interests in South Africa. Haake interweaves images of Alcan’s support of cultural events, including the opera, on larger than life posters, together with one on which Steven Biko’s post-mortem body, in tortured death, is printed. Haake’s work resonates with William Kentridge’s line-drawing films, shown in a continuous loop in one of the inner rooms in the basement exhibition space; Monument, Mine, Sobriety Obesity and Growing Old, and Felix in Exile also remind one that vast profits from mining, which financed many philanthropic and cultural events, could never justify the horrific conditions under which those who did the labour lived.
These sections also contain some of the most innovative experimentation with photography: Jane Alexander’s ethereal, surreal mixed media collages warn, “By the End of the Day You’re Going to Need Us,” and Adrian Piper’s sexually explicit charcoal and oil crayon drawings on pages of The New York Times, defacing columns of staid reportage on South Africa, have the effect of shocking the disinterested reader at their breakfast table: is it that black men would fuck white women, and that white women will inevitably be drawn to their purported virility and extra-large genitalia that the architects of apartheid were really afraid of? In these fiery scrawls, I see the predecessors of Anton Kannenmeyer and Conrad Botes’ Bittercomix.
It is in this labyrinth that the ICP provides the richest variety of photographers, some whose work I’d never come across, not even in South Africa. It is also here that I realise that some of the iconic images I associate only with one or two famous photographers contain themes that were simultaneously (or previously) photographed by their lesser-known contemporaries: Mofokeng’s images of mobile churches—“Opening Song,” “Laying of Hands,” “Exhortations” and “Overcome. Spiritual Ecstasy” resonate with Goldblatt’s near-comatose figures in The Transported of Kwa-Ndebele—the singing figures, eyes sealed shut, hands airborne, and mouths open in praise are almost transposable withthose traveling through the twilight hours, calling out to heaven to deliver them in their few hours of deep sleep.
Chris Lechdowski’s images of “Katjong” and his “old time friends” in Harfield capture ordinary people, in spare surroundings, made iconic by the photographer’s ability to reframe them in light. Lechdowski’s work, and Omar Badsha’s “Pensioner,” “Migrant Worker,” and “Unemployed Worker” elevate the plasterer, the bricklayer, and the man who travelled far—only to face the absence of work—to that of apostles: these are stills capturing minor lives, memoirs of people who kept watch over each other, each witnessing the other’s day-to-day impossible hopes. In a brief interview, I ask Omar Badsha about photography’s connection with the work of memoir—how both are engaged in re-inscribing self, in re-visioning the manner in which one sees oneself, and, in the process, transforming, also, how the other sees one. He says that as photographers, his contemporaries were actively grappling with defining who they were, and “what we be should saying to our audience.” Badsha explains that long before the Black Consciousness movement, his group of photographers were speaking about freedom; they knew that “without freeing ourselves of racism, we couldn’t be free…[we knew] that our work is a political act: we had to ask, ‘how are we presented’? Because we were not accepted or represented by major galleries, we [realised that] our audience is our own people. We showed it in our own communities, in halls. The biggest exhibits were outside the commercial galleries, travelling from one community group to another. It was about having agency; we were far from being victims.”
Because there was an intimate awareness that the photographer was not separated from her or his work, and that there was an imperative to tell one’s story as one experienced it—rather than as the apartheid state dictated it to be—these photographers’ goals and challenges were inevitably linked with those that surround autobiography and memoir-writing. Badsha reinforces my hypothesis: “How do you see or speak to yourself without first addressing yourself or identifying self? In this way, photography speaks to biography. Our work as photographers helped reframe how we saw ourselves, especially in the 1980s.” Badsha and his contemporaries were consciously aware of the intellectual and political work in which photographs and photographers participate. They were not just photographers who shot and printed what stood before them, but cultural producers who understood the significance of photography in re-shaping the aesthetic, socio-political, and intellectual perceptions of their time. While the wall texts do not explicitly state this, it’s hard to walk away from the exhibition without comprehending that relationship between art, artists, and the political imperatives of the time, of which many of these photographers were so obviously aware.
For some in South Africa, however, it seemed like nothing would change. John Liebenberg’s near-voyeuristic photographs of young, white men who went to make war on the border between Angola and South Africa—captured as they fired up braais, picnicked, and swam in the Cunene River within kilometres of killing fields; Paul Weinberg’s photographs of then-president P.W. Botha and his wife visiting Soweto’s town council in 1988, leaving after they were ceremonially granted “freedom of the township” by the mayor of Soweto; Paul Alberts’ images of the puppet regimes set up in “Bantustans”—the president of Boputhatswana, Lucas Mangope, his ministers, and his wives, going about ceremonial tasks under the watchful eye of then-South African president, P.W. Botha; Cedric Nunn’s King Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelethini awaiting the opening of the KwaZulu legislature in Ulundi, 1985: all these images, presented in winding passages of exhibition space, make it seem as though life adjusted to apartheid, and that people just carried on. But Nunn’s image of a Valentine’s Day Ball (1986), juxtaposed with an image of a mother mourning the death of her son—a supporter of the UDF, in what came to be known as the “Natal War” (1987)—gives one an idea of the schizophrenic experience of the 1980s in South Africa.
But in the end, no one had the luxury of standing still: although Gisèle Wulfsohn’s “Domestic Worker” (1986) shows a be-aproned black maid walking a dog on Lookout Beach, Plettenberg Bay, with her ‘madam’ walking a few steps ahead, Rashid Lombard’s photograph captures the joyful energy of a Defiance Campaign group taking over a “whites only” beach in Blauberg Strand in 1989. Lombard’s is one of few colour photographs in the exhibition, and remarkable for it: the sky is that impossible Cape Town summer blue, trousers are rolled up against the sand and surf, skin is glowing with the pleasure of that day. Arm in arm, a group intended only to walk madam’s dog on this exclusive piece of beachfront strides purposefully up the strand.
The last sections include some of the most violent images—killings of innocent passers-by, carried out on the streets, and protests by white supremacist groups as the election grew close. I speak to a guard patrolling the basement exhibition space. He is Ghanaian. He enquires into what I’m doing there, writing detailed notes and taking iPhone images of the text accompanying each photograph. When he learns that I teach at a university in Upstate New York, he tells me that he, too, was a teacher, back in Ghana: he has a BSc. in Social Studies, and taught his students about the history of apartheid. He gives me a lesson right there: under an initiative of Nkrumah, Ghana, Nigeria, and several other English-speaking West African countries adopted young South African children who had lost their parents, and educated them free of charge.“ Nigeria had lots of them. Ghana, we had fewer. But there were two who were in my school.” Another museum guard, a stately gentleman with a crop of white hair rivalling Wole Soyinka’s unruly mop, is from Jamaica: he tells me that many South Africans have visited this show. He can see the parallels between the civil rights movement in the U.S., Jamaica, and the way that history is as quickly forgotten as the bodies trampled by conquering armies. When he asked South African-born visitors if anything has changed in their country, they said “no.”
It is easy to feel overwhelmed here, by the sheer number of photographs and thematic sections, the density of the image clusters, and the text panels detailing the history. Despite this, some portions of this exhibit leave one curious for even more—as if entire chapters are missing in this story. The tables with books of photography under covered under sealed glass leaves one particularly wanting. We only see the cover photograph of Omar Badsha’s small volume, Letter to Farzanah—a great-grandmother holding a new-born, swaddled in clear light from behind, and deeper secrecies and grey shadows in front of them—is a book I wished I could open, to read what a father might say to a daughter born into violence and inequality. Brian Wallis, the ICP’s chief curator, agrees. “Any one of these individual photographers has a lifetime of work; to capture their experiences across this fifty year period is extremely difficult to do. So what we tried to do, and what Okwui did very successfully, is to open up questions” by re-presenting rarely seen films, multi-media art, and a myriad of photographs by photographers from a wide range of backgrounds.
Enwezor’s intent is evident in these divided sets of images, depicting life under siege: the thrill of an American politician’s visit, the daily indignities and flaring violence, and the escapism provided by drink, song, dancing, and sex. Together, they show us how ordinary life went on, despite the restrictions of apartheid laws, and how the massive bureaucracy infringed on these escape artists nonetheless, illustrated in the abandon and excesses with which each group partied as hard as possible, coming together so rarely and under such secrecy that it was hardly ever captured in photographs. In staging a photography exhibition covering some of the darkest times in human history, leading up to a revolution, and a democratic election, the ICP could have glorified and whitewashed, especially towards the end: they could have made the events leading up to the 1994 general election, and Nelson Mandela’s presidency look like something that took place peacefully and with consensus all around. But these coiling rooms of photographs, accompanied by equally winding and complicated conversations provided by visitors, remind us that this was not an exhibition intended to tell simplified stories of uncontested victories, replete with easy villains and sanctified national heroes.
M. Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Oswego.
This article first appeared in Art South Africa in March 2013.