Going to see David Goldblatt’s photographs on the Upper East Side

When you take the 6-train north, and get off on 96th and Lexington, the tributaries of late summer green on Park and Madison Avenues lead you towards Central Park. Two blocks east of the station, and the maintained lagoon of the park, immaculately spilling flowers in window boxes, and mid-morning ladies–as deliberately manicured as their show dogs–guide the way to Carnegie Hill, where The Jewish Museum is located.

Outside, an older Japanese couple, and two white women in their 60s wait with me till the guards inside unlock the glass entrance doors. Who are the guards? Middle-aged Indian uncles. We go through the now-inevitable security. Though it is the Monday after the ninth 9/11 anniversary, we are not wanded, or thoroughly searched. But we do go through the passageway of a dutiful metal-detector, which ceremonially beeps out in recognition of the Japanese gentleman’s belt buckle.

Another Indian uncle at the coat-check remands any large bags, which cannot be taken inside. Neither he, nor the others who wander through the hallways, ask me for details about my name, ask after my family, or provenance: far too well-trained to look after the proprieties of the Jewish Museum to do what they must be itching to get at. How many South Asians would they greet as visitors here?

It is David Goldblatt’s exquisitely imagined images that I am here to see: the show is titled, “South African Photographs” – and indeed, it is a rambling walk through his work, all the way from 1948 to 2009.

In an interview with Goldblatt in June this year, at his small flat on Long Street, Cape Town, he told me that he had an exhibition in Manhattan. How would an Upper East Side museum frame Goldblatt’s nuance and bluntness, I wondered; how would they frame him as a compatriot, a Jew, a link to a shared mission and history? Perhaps, in order to ensure that he doesn’t become a pet for a particular set of political views, I also see just how carefully picked–in which his intentional directives for the audience are obvious–this collection of images is.

On the entryway to the Lowell M. Schulman, and Diane Wallace Schulmann Gallery is Goldblatt’s own writing: his “impulse to photograph… begins with something in the external world”, but it is an event or a subject’s existence, its realness, the breathing necessity of that thing that draws his camera out.  Here, Goldblatt has named it the “isness” – a “quality of being” that makes him want to “distil” uncapturable, quickening things into photographs.

As I read the print on the wall, I hear the harmonised voices of the familiar “Senzenina” from within the gallery. Goldblatt is purposeful about stepping outside of the immediacy of political spectacle – there are no demonstrations, riots, or shots being fired in his images; the introductory remarks on the wall are careful to clarify that “as a photographer, Goldblatt has not documented major political events or horrifying incidences of violence.”

So why is Senzenina playing?

But before I find the source of the singing – that harmonious meditation on discord, on being forsaken, on comprehending one’s lack of value in a world constructed by a powerful Other – there is a hall of images: first, Goldblatt’s early work, “random photographs” that were not a commercial success because his “inexperience led to many failures”: a mother and child on a beach in Durban, before it was designated “a ‘separate amenity’ reserved for Whites, June 1949.” The composition is brilliant, if the focus is a little blurry: a small boy in shorts is running, high-legged, towards his mother, along the very edge of the sea. His one leg is kicked up so high that from this angle, it is completely hidden by his body: his is a lofty delight. This mother’s role in South Africa, even before this bit of legislation passed, is unmistakable: her hair is hidden beneath the tidy scrolls of a doek; she is aproned, and comfortingly large: her existence – her “isness” – is to look after a white family and its children on her working days.  But here, Goldblatt reveals something else that makes her “is”, beyond her function to her white employers.

There are early images of miners going home to “Nyassaland” (with an explanation about the fortnight of Christmas holidays given for serving a year-long contract), and the twin bathtubs belonging to the General Manager at a mine, “with “dirty” bath and “clean” bath for his use after he had been underground, New Kleinfontein Gold Mine, Benoni, May 1967”. A photograph of a “Shebeen” in Highlands, Johannesburg, taken in May/June 1961, is accompanied by a small explanation: “Shebeen: illegal drinking place”. This good time saloon consists of a flat plane of hilltop, overlooking the high-rising city beyond: ghosts of the City of Gold. A handful of men sit on the tufts of early winter grass.

In the second section, titled “On the Mines”, Goldblatt includes a “Novice mineworker from Transkei,” in the Fanakalo school (the lingua franca “evolved from corrupted elements of Nguni languages, English, and Afrikaans for the transmission of orders from White mine officials to Black workers who come from many parts of the subcontinent and speak many languages” explains the caption next to the image); Boss Boy; Spanner Man; and Master Shaft Sinker. In the middle of the images of shaft-sinking, there sits Harry Oppenheimer – shown “not as a captain of industry,” but as a “meek and vulnerable man,” says Goldblatt on the audio guide; for this reason, Oppenheimer’s public relations team did not like this photograph. Oppenheimer is introduced to the American public by Joan Rosenbaum, the museum director who conducts our attention on the audio guide: he was member of a family of wealthy business titans; he was a respected philanthropist who remained opposed to apartheid, supported Jewish causes and the state of Israel. Goldblatt, however, is adamant about clarifying Jewish complicity in apartheid: yes, “almost every progressive effort in South Africa” was, “in some way, connected with Harry Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer Trust,” he says. But while the family’s money from the gold and diamond mining industry was distributed to “worthy causes,” they remained complicit: their hands supported “much of the apparatus that the government needed in order to operate.” Nadine Gordimer’s voice enters here to explain: this photograph captures the complexity and complicity of South Africa’s mining bosses – of whom Oppenheimer was the “biggest” boss – their profit, no matter how philanthropically distributed, came from the “sweat of and toil and the dreadful conditions” under which their workers lived.

William Kentridge’s “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris; Mine; Monument; and Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old” are also included within a small, private room leading off from Goldblatt’s work. Part of the Drawings for Projection series, these films “depict the fictional Jewish characters Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitelbaum, who begin as alteregos of each other.” But while Eckstein (“Eck” being a pun on the Dutch word for “eye”, or “I”) is a ruthless Mineboss and Mega-industrialist, and Teitelbaum is a slippery artist who seduces Eckstein’s neglected wife, they remain alter-versions of privilege: benefitting from the “sweat of and toil” of mine workers who produce a world in which powerful men have time enough for existential crises.

I come to an inner room, an inset within the long passageway of the gallery, in which a looped videotape is playing: William Kentridge is interviewing Goldblatt –a younger, dark-haired Goldblatt. The show aired in 1985 on Channel 4 Television in Great Britain. At a suitable moment, “Senzenina” plays, though the significance of this song is probably lost on most of the visitors on that day – all except the one who actually corrects the sweet, earnest docent giving the tour, who keeps referring to Goldblatt as “Goldberg”. On the walls are a map, and a well-designed timeline that educates the novice, without patronising those who arrive educated on South Africa’s history – it chronicles the major events in South Africa after Dutch Colonialism (1652–1806); British Colonialism (1806–1910); and 1948-Present. Interspersed, after 1948, are dates important in David Goldblatt’s development as a man, and as a photographer. On an audio guide, the voices of Andre Brink and Rian Malan are interspersed with that of Gordimer and Goldblatt himself: “Afrikaners were upright … anti-Semitic … not fond of Jews.”

Goldblatt’s stories intervene – in the manner I’ve heard him repeat many times over the course of the past four years in which I’ve interviewed him, heard him questioned by others, and viewed his photographs – to attempt to explain why he wanted to create such a monument to hardscrabble Afrikaners – those who were “not fond” of him. Here they are: the iconic “Afrikaners” – the images that made Goldblatt famous, and reviled among his countrymen, who saw these images of white country-folk to be too revealing of their ordinariness, their lack of superiority. The caption on the wall add that there was “inspiration” to be had from Afrikaners, “many of them ‘ordinary people,’ who stood against the might of the Church, Party, and State.” The first image in this group is not of people, but of the low stone wall in the big-sky country of the Great Karoo: the one built by two slaves 200 years ago, for whom it took thirteen years to build, according to the lore of Quaggasfontein. There are farmers who had lived through seven years of drought, at a cattle auction: grim, unyielding men with little abundance in their lives, other than the portliness of middle age. Next to me is a woman with one of the audio guides; the interviews cackle noisily through my interlocutor’s gadget. I overhear the counterpoint of Goldblatt’s story – though he caught hell from the ruling elite for unmasking Afrikaners in their unsophisticated glory, the widow of one of the men in this photograph sent him a letter, asking him for a copy of the picture: this was the best picture she had ever seen of him.

Other sections in “South African Photographs” are “Bantustans,” which, as the guide informs, was “the system of puppet “states” set up by the government for the Black people of South Africa”; on “Boksburg”, an “essay on life in a small-town, middle-class, White community in South Africa under apartheid” chronicling the manner in which “law-abiding, decent, and even humane” people remained “complicit in and perhaps actively supportive of a system that was fundamentally evil”; “Structures” and values of apartheid and South Africa as it is expressed in buildings, city planning, and the demolishment of homes under Group Areas Acts; “Johannesburg”, a city in which “the divisive effect of the old and profoundly racialised geography, combined with the lack of upward mobility in huge numbers of poor and unemployed Black people, make a coherently integrated city a very distant prospect”.

Among this vast collection are treasures that I walk away with. Two women – members of the Methodist Church – meeting “to find ways of reducing the racial, cultural and class barriers which divide them, Boksburg, 1979–80” share a blanket that warms their laps: the slim length of the white woman’s index finger secures the blanket from slipping; her neighbour’s hands secure a bible.  One of the final images, at the point where the little group of museumgoers following the docent abandons the tour, is of Zimbabwean refugees: given refuge in the Central Methodist Church, in March 2009, in Johannesburg. When holy hell burns down civilization and living human beings, the Methodists arrive: to stand up to, ward off, and – sometimes – ameliorate power.

Many who write in the comment book are awed by Goldblatt and Kentridge’s work, and feel gratitude towards both. Some write personal notes of friendship; others scribble the occasional maudlin message: “Why does history have to repeat itself!?” cries one; yet others leave their own drawings, and thanks to the museum. Next to a cute line drawing of a very happy, hand-holding couple (manly Josh Smith and a curvy-girly Carly Natrass) are the lines “It was the best apartheid museum we have ever visited in our lives”.  Strangely, fewer messages seem to address Goldblatt’s work – perhaps because the comment book is located in the room that houses Kentridge’s films.

One visitor is not impressed: “boring” he says of Goldblatt’s images.

Outside, it’s turned out to be a hot day, and the news is all agog: the man who advertises himself as a church minister – the one who wanted to burn copies of the Koran on the 11th of September – claims that all sorts of Important People promised to grant him private conversations. In the midst of his hyperbole, I hear a report that could have slipped by easily: every year, on the site of the Twin Towers, two beams of light are projected skyward – “The Tribute in Light”, which has now become a part of the Sept. 11 “memorial celebration”, “represent the World Trade Center towers that are no longer part of the skyline”. But this year, late-migrating birds (delayed by unfavorable weather conditions), which use “visual cues” in the sky to direct their safe passageway, become confused by the beams of light: we saw their flying bodies as bits of paper, blowing and darting in and out of the beams of blue-white light, expending valuable reserves of energy. These beams of light – here to memorialise collapsed power structures – frustrate, instead, those creatures who use familiar signals to direct them. One could say the same confusion – the same fluttering, expended energy – can be seen in Goldblatt’s images: migratory creatures being directed by false signals, and structures that fell to the ground long ago.

* A separate interview/essay on David Goldblatt’s work will be published in Wits University’s Johannesburg Salon, Vol. 3.

** “David Goldblatt: South African Photographs” was featured at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan ran between May 2 and September 19. Full disclosure: I did some work on the exhibit, researching and writing the timeline and the copy for a few short posters on ‘Jews and Apartheid,’ ‘Apartheid’ and ‘Jews in South Africa’ that was displayed in a “context room” at the exhibit–Sean Jacobs.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.