Rise and Fall photo exhibition captures the scars of apartheid

apartheid
Peter Magubane, Sharpeville Funeral: More than 5 000 people were at the graveyard, May 1960. (Image: Baileys African History Archive).


Museum Africa


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Lucille Davie

New York, Munich, Milan and now Johannesburg – the epic exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life opens in the city in February. It includes about 700 photographs by some of South Africa’s top photographers.

On at Museum Africa in Newtown from 13 February to 29 June, the exhibition “offers an unprecedented and comprehensive historical overview of the pictorial response to apartheid”, according to the organisers. The exhibition opened in New York in September 2012, and moved to the other cities in 2013.

Part of the celebration of 20 years of democracy, the exhibition will showcase the work of more than 70 photographers, artists and filmmakers, including Leon Levson, Eli Weinberg, David Goldblatt, Peter Magubane, Alf Kumalo, Jurgen Schadeberg, Sam Nzima, Ernest Cole, George Hallet, Omar Badsha, Gideon Mendel, Paul Weinberg, John Liebenberg, Kevin Carter, Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich.

Pictures by the Drum Magazine photographers of the 1950s and the Afrapix Collective in the 1980s will be included, as well as by the Bang Bang Club, an informal group of four photographers who worked in the townships of South Africa in the early 1990s. A subsequent book of their experiences was made into a film entitled The Bang Bang Club.

Work by contemporary artists who record the impact of apartheid as it continues to resonate today will also be included, among them Sue Williamson, Jo Ractliffe, Jane Alexander, Santu Mofokeng, Guy Tillim and William Kentridge. A new generation of artists and photographers will also be shown, including Sabelo Mlangeni, Thabiso Sekgale and the Center for Historical Re-enactments in Johannesburg.

Eight years of research

The exhibition took about eight years of research, although the idea first came to Okwui Enwezor, one of the curators, in 1994, he says. “In broad terms, the foundation for this exhibition evolved out of two interests of mine: the first was my intellectual and curatorial engagement with photography, with images of African photography. The second and related interest is how photographic images engender new possibilities for assessing what I call the African imaginary, particularly how Africans pictured and represented themselves and their social worlds,” explains Enwezor.

It examines “the aesthetic power of the documentary form – from the photo essay to reportage, social documentary to photojournalism and art – in recording, analysing, articulating and confronting the legacy of apartheid, including its impact on everyday life now in South Africa”, say the organisers in their statement.

“The exhibition argues that the rise of the Afrikaner National Party changed the pictorial perception of the country into a highly contested space based on the ideals of equality, democracy and civil rights.” It will bring together “a rich tapestry of materials that have rarely been shown together”.

Curators

The exhibition has been curated by Enwezor and Rory Bester. Nigerian-born Enwezor is the director of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich. He was previously the adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography in New York, and dean of academic affairs and senior vice-president at San Francisco Art Institute. He was the artistic director of La Triennale 2012 at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and of many other international exhibitions.

Enwezor served as the Kirk Varnedoe visiting professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and is the founding publisher and editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. He is the curator of the prestigious Venice Biennale 2015, making him the first African-born curator in the exhibition’s 100-year history. He has written extensively on contemporary African art and artists, as well as on American and international art, according to Universes in Universe, the international art website. At the age of 20 he moved to New York, and lives there and in Munich.

Enwezor says that “the end of apartheid laws could not ease the scars born of those laws. Those scars, a product of apartheid’s debilitating degradation of black lives, remain visibly inscribed in the social fabric of the country today.”

Trilogy of exhibitions

About 10 years ago, he says, he proposed a trilogy of exhibitions focusing on photography and Africa. “I chose three specific conceptual and historical points of departure: a broad survey of photography and contemporary art by African artists in the 21st century. The exhibition that resulted from that was Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography in 2006.”

The second focus was on the 20th century, looking at photography within the context of socio-political struggle and change. And the third focus, being researched at the moment, is for an exhibition entitled Sun in their Eyes: Photography and the Invention of Africa.

Bester is an art historian and critic, as well as a curator and documentary filmmaker at the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he is the head of history of art.

His teaching and research include archive and museum practice, curatorial studies, exhibition histories, photographic practice and post colonialism. He writes art criticism for South Africa’s top investigative newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, as well as for Art South Africa, Camera Austria and Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. He has curated and co-curated a number of exhibitions in Denmark, Germany, South Africa, Sweden and the US.

Numerous visits

Enwezor says the research for the exhibition involved numerous visits to archives, museums, universities, libraries, photographers, artists, curators and galleries in South Africa, Europe and the US. He laments the fact that although they ploughed through thousands of images, there were times when they faced what he calls “the case of the missing negatives”.

“On the one hand we had so many photographs, yet there were so many by different photographers that have been irretrievably lost,” he recounts.

Asked what he is most satisfied with in the exhibition, he says: “I am most pleased not only by the scope and richness of the material in the exhibition, but what makes me very proud is that almost the entirety of the show is built on the brave and imaginative work of South African artists and photographers. The exhibition is a tribute to their immense photographic skill and political courage.”

In an exhibition of this size there are a number of sponsors: Mark McCain and Caro MacDonald/Eye and I, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the ICP Exhibitions Committee, National Endowment for the Arts, Joseph and Joan Cullman Foundation for the Arts, Deborah Jerome and Peter Guggenheimer, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

The Johannesburg exhibition is sponsored in particular by the Department of Arts and Culture and the Ford Foundation, supported by the City of Johannesburg, Museum Africa, the European Union, the Goethe-Institut, the Austrian Embassy, the British Council, Eunic, the German Embassy, the French Institute of South Africa, the Swiss Embassy and Wits University.