by M. Neelika Jayawardane
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
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.