Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and Bureaucracy of Everyday Life
by Nana Ocran
From its establishment in1948 to its dismantling in1990, South Africa’s apartheid system is given an intricate visual and narrative treatment in this huge photography book. Published in conjunction with a 2012 exhibition, Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, which took place at New York’s Center of Photography, the same-titled tome is the result of intense research by curator, Okwui Enwezor and art historian, critic and documentary filmmaker, Rory Bester. Calabar-born Enwezor has a prolific track record, which includes the role of artistic director of the second Johannesburg Biennale, artistic director of Documenta 11, Germany’s exhibition of modern and contemporary art and curator of an impressive number of international exhibitions at venues including New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Tate Modern in London and Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Currently, the director of Haus der Kunst, a non-collecting art museum in Munich, his ‘breakthrough’ came in 1996 through his curation of the exhibition, In/sight at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. A showcase of thirty African photographers dating from 1940 to the mid-1990s, this was perhaps one of the roots of this latest South African photographic opus. Rise and Fall of Apartheid feature images by 83 photographers, most, but not all of South African heritage. There are some big names in there – a roll call of highly notable and mainly South African photographers, whose images have traced a diverse range of lives lived through the country’s harshest period of racially-shaped history. George Hallett, a self-confessed ‘fly-on-the-wall’ photographer has been documenting African diasporic communities since 1965. The book features some of his well-known images of the District Six area of Cape Town, a place where he himself was born, and where parts of the province had been declared white, forcing the removal of black residents, and the destruction of their property. In this book, Hallett’s 1960s portraits show the faded splendor of an area where children play on litter-strewn street corners, or ‘Corner boys’ of all ages hang out posing nonchalantly for the camera. More rural images show dancers at a jazz festival and male and female farm workers, perhaps arranged for a serene shot while taking a break. Also featured is the work of one of the dons of South African photography, Peter Magubane. Having started his career in the mid-1950s, he’d initially used a Kodak Brownie to capture political images for Drum magazine. This was a publication that focused on urban blacks and the effects of apartheid. His campaigning images of South Africa’s Treason Trial, which ran for five years from 1956 and resulted in the acquittal of all defendants charged with ‘high treason’, forms an important visual document of the persistent tension and confrontation between the apartheid regime and its well-choreographed opposition. Magubane’s 1957 image of police struggling to hold back crowds outside the trial court is doubly significant once we realize that as a photographer, he often had to hide his camera inside hollowed-out loaves of bread or empty milk cartons to escape arrest for openly carrying a camera. However, a sharp-thinking but unidentified photographer managed to capture a rare shot of Magubane being arrested in an opportunistic image that has found its way into the book. The iconic work of Eli Weinberg, a Latvian-born photographer whose anti-racist activism in South Africa led to his house-arrest is documented, as is the work of José Silva, Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek and Greg Marinovich – four photographers who founded the Bang Bang Club during South Africa’s transitional period of 1990-1994, recording much of the unrest that was taking place in the townships. Ernest Cole’s name is internationally known for his photographic work in capturing the day-to-day mundanity of apartheid. From racially segregated street signs to the brutality of images of incarceration, police swoops, pass raids and the inhumanity of group medical checks, Cole is significant in visually spreading the reality of life in South Africa beyond the country’s borders. Best known for his South Africa-banned book, House of Bondage – his 1967 New York publishing deal, which he achieved having moved to that city. This was perhaps an outcome that was as great a political act as any that he would have achieved back in his own country.
The photographers in the Rise and Fall of Apartheid are predominantly male, but important female names include Jodi Bieber, Jillian Edelstein, Sue Williamson, Wendy Shwegmann and Gisèle Wulfsohn. Other names include Jane Alexander, whose Faustian-styled response to the country’s apartheid and non-democratic status is shown. New York-born photographer, Margaret Bourne-White’s 1950s images of prisoners and tribesmen signing gold contracts form part of her portfolio of work under her status as the first female war correspondent, while Catherine Ross’s 1991 anti-Margaret Thatcher images highlight a new era of more outwardly- focused rebellion from South Africa’s younger generation. It’s the work of these and all the other photographers listed in the Rise and Fall of Apartheid that may have paved the way for South Africa’s younger or up-and- coming male and female photographers or photo collectives, whose individual choices of photographic subject matter come from a long history of documenting the diverse images of the nation – even through its struggles. Whether politically motivated or not, the work of artists like Nontsikelelo Veleko or photo collective iseeadifferentyou, whose highly fashion-focused street shots that highlight black identity and urbanization have a thread that goes back to the country’s earlier days of photography when the freedom to shoot was so often off limits.
The predominantly monochrome images in the Rise and Fall of Apartheid are arranged chronologically and interwoven with detailed essays that put the pernicious world of apartheid into context. Contributions come from literary scholar and cultural policy advisor, Andries Walter Oliphant, philosopher and political scientist, Achille Mbembe, Professor of History at the University of the Western Cape, Patricia Hayes, Johannesburg- based curator and writer, Khwezi Gule, and Emeritus Professor of History of Art at University of Cape Town, Michael Goodby. An essay titled Restructuring Apartheid by the late artist, writer, and professor, Colin Richards states that “It was through photography that the reality of apartheid became globalized.” Whether counted as photojournalism, political documentation or street photography, the reality of the effects that South Africa’s system of racial divisions had on the country is stark. However, this isn’t a morbid book. It’s essentially a necessary and important document of a specific span of a very particular history, with the lives of the country’s citizens – both black and white – seen through the lenses of a diverse range of photographers, each presenting the country’s reality as they see it. The subjects of the images, be they migrant workers, student protesters, street cleaners, pallbearers, church goers, diplomats or nightclub dancers, each have their own stories to tell through body language, signs, placards, victory signs, laughter, sorrow, or plain and direct eye-to- camera contact. Ending significantly in 1995, post Mandela’s inauguration as president, there’s perhaps an interesting and lingering question as to what another such well-researched publication documenting the country’s ‘new democracy’ in the era before and after Mandela’s passing might look like.
Full article published in Omenka Magazine Volume I Issue IV.
January 28, 2020
December 13, 2019
October 21, 2019