Last Thursday, as part of my new internship at ARTnews, I visited the International Center of Photography to take a look at its current exhibition, “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life.”
Curated by Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, the show consists of over 70 photographers and nearly 500 photographs, films and publications, chronicling the affect of apartheid on everyday life in South Africa.
Exploring the way these images were created, circulated, and ultimately used as regime-changers is the mission of the show. “The role of photography in the struggle against apartheid is far larger than we can really imagine,” Enwezor says. “It became one of the most persuasive, instrumental, ideological tools.”
At a time when museums have been rethinking the way they present art from regions beyond traditional centers of power—a process Enwezor has pioneered and championed—the relatively small shadow cast by apartheid in the cultural sphere shows how much territory remains to be explored. “We see so many exhibitions on Europe and D-Day,” he says. “I want people to take away that there are multiple theaters of history.”
Peter Magubane is an extremely active photographer who placed himself in the line of fire numerous times and who was arrested on many occasions. Magubane does not identify himself as neither a photojournalist nor a “struggle photographer”; rather, he sees himself simply as a photographer, working to portray South African photography as moving from protest photography to a medium that depicted a culture that was more self-aware.
Magubane photographed the 1976 Soweto uprisings, led by black students who did not want Afrikaans established as their national language.
One of the most iconic photographs from the uprisings, shot by Sam Nzima, also hangs in the ICP:
The photograph depicts the fatally-wounded, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, an 18-year-old South African school boy. Hector’s 17-year-old sister Antoinette runs alongside them. The photograph has a striking resemblance to a Pièta scene.
Another photographer whose work is featured is Billy Monk, a white bouncer at the Catacombs, a whites-only club in Cape Town. Monk photographed his friends in their various states of inebriation during the night. Despite the festiveness and wildness of his images, his subjects’ behaviors speak of social fracture and racial segregation, presenting a very classist portrayal of life in South Africa under apartheid.
One of the most striking series is “The Transported of KwaNdebele,” shot by David Goldblatt. Expelled from their own homes and placed in a segregated area, these black South Africans were forced to endure up to eight-hour commutes to work. Some wrapped themselves in blankets in hope of catching some sleep; some cushioned their heads with foam plastic to protect themselves from injury due to the incredible bumpiness of the roads. While the images capture South Africans facing hardship and immense social fracture, they also depict their strength and self-pride in fighting to support themselves and their families.
Some of my favorite photographs were of the Black Sash, a group of white, privileged women who protested apartheid. The women used “the relative safety of their privileged racial classification to speak out against the erosion of human rights in their country” (2005 Speech by Marcella Naidoo, National Director of the Black Sash). Their demonstrations were extremely performative: before heading to the streets, they would dress up in luxe threads (accompanying their striking black sashes) and coif their hair. One of the more striking aspects of these photographs that my museum guide discussed is the fact that when the protest signs enter the frame, people immediately cease to be mute, and the photographs function differently than if there was a lack of words.
The show also features a series of animated shorts by William Kentridge, “Drawings for Projection.” Kentridge’s process is extremely meticulous and painstaking: he draws, then films his drawings, then returns to the sketches and erases lines, then films again and repeats the process. His method, ultimately presenting a series of constantly moving lines on screen, is a creative mechanism for identifying social fracture and instability. Check out “Tide Table,” from 2003, below:
The show closes on Jan. 6, 2013, and I highly encourage you to drop by the ICP to examine the collection of images that shows the incredible achievements of an array of South African photographers.