Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and Bureaucracy of Everyday Life
by Nana Ocran
From its establishment in 1948 to its dismantling in 1990, 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 Centre of Photography, the same-titled tome is the result of lengthy research by curator Okwui Enwezor and art historian and critic Rory Bester. Calabar-born Enwezor has a prolific track record that includes the role of artistic director of the second Johannesburg Biennale, artistic director ofDocumenta 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.
His actual ‘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 features images by 83 photographers, most, but not all of South African heritage. Big names include George Hallet a self-confessed ‘fly-on-the-wall’ photographer, who has been documenting African diasporic communities since 1965 and Peter Magubane who started his career in the mid 1950s, using a Kodak Brownie to capture political images for South Africa’s Drum magazine. 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, and documented much of the unrest in the townships.
The chronological order of the book allows for images and detailed essays to be interwoven, and the world of apartheid explained in terms of resistance as well as the strange and unsettling banality of oppression. 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, pall bearers, 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.
Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is published by Prestel Publishing Limited and available on Amazon.
The exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is showing at the MuseuMAfricA, an historical museum in Johannesburg until 29 June 2014.
August 16, 2019