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. Nearby, 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. There are some visible traces of “Africa”: West African men sell pashmina scarves, woollen hats, and gloves in street corner stalls, and Disney’s “The Lion King” rules Broadway—now in its fifteenth year running, the show has a stretch of window displays dedicated to re-instituting Africa as a place of masks, skins, and noble, half-human animals.
A yellow banner with black lettering—stretching across the length of the ICP’s ground floor windows—announces the current exhibition, “Rise and Fall of Apartheid.” By the front entrance, there’s a massive poster of a familiar image: a young Nelson 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 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.
Star curator Okwui Enwezor’s intent for this exhibition—to ensure that the typical ways in which Africans are portrayed as hapless victims are not rehashed here at the ICP—is clear. 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.
The ICP’s 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. The long and complicated story of what happened between 1948 and 1990 is told chronologically, through a multitude of images. 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 projects a particular perspective that helps direct the visitor.
What does South Africa mean to Manhattan? Here, in Midtown, is it possible to communicate the mundane absurdities of “[o]ne of the most repressive and detested political systems ever devised”? 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”? 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 several included in the current exhibition: Omar Badsha, Rashid Lombard, Jeeva Rajgopal) a chance to show what life was like, behind the 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.
When I spoke to some of the young college students visiting the ICP that afternoon, it seems that there’s less of a connection for them. 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.
After visiting the ICP’s exhibition, I wonder if American visitors like the students to whom I spoke will 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 well before 1948—without knowledge of the myriad laws that helped create race-based segregation long before the National 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 African 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, braaied 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 states that even for Enwezor (and Rory Bester, who assisted Enwezor), the exhibition was a challenge to organise, even though its focus is confined to a single country, and to a particular time period in African photography; 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 for the general public, [forming] their image of African photography.”
The ICP, though not one of New York City’s mega-museums, is cleverly set up to maximise its 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. However, he does not claim that this is a comprehensive history—rather, it is a “critical interrogation of [apartheid’s] symbols, signs, and representations.” Together, they help the viewer comprehend the “paradigmatic role played by social and documentary photography” in the struggle against apartheid.
Inside the lobby space, next to a seated museum guard, two television monitors play two separate loops of film: one is black and white, the other, colour. 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.
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 an illusion of normalcy, are flanked by sections of photographs depicting the Defiance Campaign and the Treason Trial: 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 performers 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 District Six are juxtaposed with Noel Watson’s images of police carrying out evictions of black people from newly designated “white” areas. There is 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 sheer joy of having someone of the Kennedy’s stature understand the hardships of millions in country an ocean away, of being connected to him by the same exuberant desire to recognise common human dignity.
Standing there, enjoying a moment of revelry as I ogled 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, handcuffed men arrested for being in a “white area” illegally, and large signs denoting “white” taxi ranks, dry cleaners, toilets, entrances for “Non-Europeans and goods,” and a black woman scrubbing a “Whites only” stairway. Around the corner from Cole’s record of the pass laws’ dark story, “Images of Public Protest,” documenting the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Uprising, contains some of the exhibition’s most striking images. They still have the power to make one weep, no matter how ever-present they are in South Africa.
From here, an escalator leads to the lower exhibition spaces. 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 uncannily with Goldblatt’s near-comatose figures in The Transported of KwaNdebele: Mofokeng’s singing figures, eyes sealed shut, hands airborne, and mouths open in praise are almost transposable with Goldblatt’s twilight travellers, 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 how others see one, too. 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—Badsha and his contemporaries’ goals and challenges were inevitably linked with those that surround autobiography and memoir-writing. He emphasises, “How do you see or speak to yourself without first addressing yourself or identifying self, or without addressing the inherent racism inside all South Africans? In this way, photography speaks to biography. Our work as photographers helped reframe how we saw ourselves, especially in the 1980s.” Long before the Black Consciousness movement, Badsha and his contemporaries were aware of the intellectual and political work in which photographs and photographers participate. They were not just mechanics 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. “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 exhibitions travelled from one community group to another. These efforts were about having agency; we were far from being victims.”
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—and 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: 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 Cedric 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 the 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.
One almost feels suffocated in the exhibition spaces; but simultaneously, I realise that without feeling overwhelmed, the “cumulative effect of what took place in South Africa could not be experienced otherwise.” These are photographs of 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. But these coiling rooms of photographs remind us that this was not an exhibition intended to tell simplified stories of uncontested victories, replete with easy villains and sanctified national heroes.
All images reproduced by kind permission of the International Center for Photography. This essay is cross-posted on the new online art magazine “Contemporary And” (C&), “a dynamic space for the reflection on and linking together of ideas, discourse and information on contemporary art practice from diverse African perspectives.” It first appeared in Art South Africa in March 2013. “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life” now runs at Haus der Kunst (Munich, Germany) until May, 26.