First published on February 16, 2014 in The Sunday Independent.
Okwui Enwezor wants to show me some of what he terms “breadcrumbs”. By this, the Nigerian-born internationally acclaimed curator means the overlooked details embedded in some of the familiar – and unfamiliar – images at the exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the bureaucracy of everyday life. I follow him through the ground floor of the Museum Africa. It’s five days before the opening of this gargantuan show and most of the 800-odd photographs have yet to be hung; many are covered in bubble wrap, lying on the floor along the walls where they will find a home for the six-month duration of the exhibition. Standing in front of an enlarged picture taken on October 17, 1966 by an unidentified photographer, of people on the steps of the Cape Town Supreme Court, awaiting the trial of Verwoerd’s assassin, Dimitri Tsafendas, Enwezor points at a bag clasped between the hands of an old white woman.
“Look – it’s an Olympic logo. She must have attended the 1964 Olympics, where South Africa’s inclusion in world sports was beginning to be disputed. The bag means nothing, but it frames a particular dispute and the role of South Africa in the world. These things were not planned. You could write an essay on this fragment of the image,” says Enwezor, stepping back from the image to admire his “breadcrumb” from afar.
Several days later, during the press preview, he returns to the image again, pointing out the bag. After the exhibition’s three iterations in New York, Milan, and Munich, it’s not surprising he has developed a routine.
Enwezor’s interest in the smallest of details isn’t unexpected, though as a curator he conspires to identify and articulate the “bigger picture” by throwing a loose net over aspects (most often African) of visual cultural production. The sheer volume of images in this gargantuan exhibition of works by South African photographers implies that Enwezor and co-curator Rory Bester have set out to capture a wide view of this era.
Every iconic image you would expect to find relating to this era in our history is here – from DF Malan’s ascension marked by ceremonies echoing the pomp of a colonial affair; to the defiance campaigns of the 1950s; burning pass books; Peter Magubane’s image of Helen Joseph leading a women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria; and the removals in Sophiatown marked by Jurgen Shadeberg’s image of a man walking through a street flanked by the rubble of buildings that were destroyed in that famous neighbourhood.
Sam Nzima’s famous photograph of Hector Pieterson is, of course, here, but it is shown next to a lesser-known one taken moments later showing people trying to get him inside a car. Pieterson’s eyes are glazed over – it was too late to save him. Comparing the two images allows one to ponder why one became iconic, when they both depict the same event. It is clear aesthetics played a role: the composition of the one we know is more pleasing, but also the lesser-known image demonstrates an attempt to save his life, while the more famous one implies defeat.
Countering these images of brutal force and protest are the upbeat ones from the pages of Drum magazine – young smiling women in two-piece bathing suits, which exude a more subtle form of defiance that works at promoting a “black is beautiful” vibe. Images from the treason trial are obviously included, such as Schadeberg’s iconic shot of a smiling Madiba – in the context of the surrounding images and the burden he was carrying at the time, his beaming grin is a testimony to his fiery spirit and his natural tendency to be optimistic in the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Significantly, this image is blown-up on a large banner inside the museum, implying that it best captures the titular “rise and fall” of apartheid. Was this era characterised more by defiance than brutality?
A series of images by Magubane of the Sharpeville massacre are presented in a line, allowing this harrowing event to replay scene by scene. People are speeding through the grass where Magubane was positioned as the shots are fired. It’s hard to believe that something that could occur so quickly could leave such a deep mark.
Predictably, images of white society are juxtaposed with those of black, such as George Hallett’s images of District Six before its destruction, and the images of white young revellers at a Cape Town club dubbed Catacombs, shot by Billy Monk. The sort of obscene scenes in the latter – a man fondles a woman’s naked breasts – implies a kind of gross immoral excess that found a suitable outlet in this underground club. It is not just the details, the breadcrumbs, in the photographs that might confer on them new life, but how they are framed: the entire social sphere in which these images are presented.
As the first major event marking the 20 years of democracy celebrations, this anniversary frames the exhibition and our reception of the images – it prompts us to ask questions that are relevant to us now. How has this era, the struggle it documents, been exploited by political parties to assure their domination?
With a documenta show under his belt and as the curator of the next Venice Biennale, Enwezor has lent a certain cachet to this exhibition, and our reception of the images too. Since curating the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, his name has come to carry weight here. His interest in this canon immediately gives the exhibition appeal among the art intelligentsia who are already quite familiar with most of these images.
But are we ready, or even interested in perusing this history (again)? It is not simply that we have become slightly desensitised to some of these images of violence or that we now appraise some of these scenes through the lens of the present, identifying phenomena that persist 20 years into democracy – such as police brutality – but in the context of cultural production, our artists, writers, playwrights have not only ceased dwelling on this heavy history, but it has become almost unfashionable to do so.
It is not so much that we wish to bury, deny or erase this history but that we simply don’t know what to do with it any more. We have ceased to dissect it because it no longer leads us anywhere new. As the late Colin Richards observes in an essay in the catalogue, “part of the shock of fresh encounters with historical atrocity is that it becomes less, not more comprehensible”.
Interestingly, when Enwezor lived in Joburg for two years in the late ’90s he observed that artists here were burdened with the “supposed disappearance of apartheid”.
“There was nothing for them to react against, their social and cultural place in this society was in crisis; what would they do next?”
Enwezor doesn’t seem to be under any illusions that this vast body of imagery can somehow lead us to the “truth” about apartheid. This was never his goal; he is simply interested in African history and culture – and placing it front and centre of the Western world. “That is why the exhibition opened in New York; it is global history, not only for South Africans.” His curatorial practice has been characterised by this Afrocentric slant: he has undertaken surveys of African culture and photography since 1996 with In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present, which showed at the Guggenheim Museum; The Short Century: Independence and liberation movements in Africa, 1945-1994, which was shown at the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, the Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and P.S.1, New York (2001-2002); and Snap Judgements (2006) at the International Centre for Photography. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid is the second instalment of a trilogy of shows that began with Snap Judgements.
When he curated documenta 11, he similarly attempted to destabilise the insular or monolithic view of culture and history, which obviously privileged the West. This is where the Rise and Fall of Apartheid squarely sits, while exposing how colonial views of Africans, embodied in Cronin-Duggan’s constructed images of the “noble savage”, laid the groundwork for apartheid.
Certainly, the inclusion of this body of photographs at the entrance of the exhibition draws attention to the role photography has played in subjugating the black subject. In other words, the power relations in socio-political spheres were re-enacted or echoed in visual production. This exhibition shows, however, that while photography as a medium may have initially maintained this status quo, black subjects would, during the apartheid era, cunningly use it to “free” themselves from white domination.
Of course, images of oppression do also work at undermining the subjectivity of Africans, offering up a stereotypical view of them as disenfranchised subjects. Nevertheless, Enwezor bombards us with such a vast history of visual culture that it prevents a singular or simple reading of an African country. This may be why Enwezor chooses to zero in on the breadcrumbs, urging us as viewers to relook at images that we think we know. “Many people have seen these images but not many people have looked at them.”
Not surprisingly, for this iteration of the exhibition Enwezor works hard at making the material seem fresh. Although he has staked out a career bent on writing African history into a global Eurocentric one, he is not a revisionist. He doesn’t aim to rewrite or reframe our history. Rather, he appears interested in presenting the canon in its entirety to enable new juxtapositions and to also identify the mechanics not only of photography during this time, but of the performance of protest; for many of the subjects in these images are not only aware they are being photographed or perform for the camera, but have constructed their performance in advance, knowing that a photograph would be the end product of their activities. This is one of the reasons Enwezor observes that “apartheid was camera ready”.
This idea links up with his notion that apartheid was, among other things, a “war of aesthetics”. This doesn’t only refer to the role of photography during the struggle, but how performance, gesture and signs, or motifs, were mobilised to counter or assert the skewed ideology of the National Party. Enwezor identifies the proliferation of photographs of funerals (particularly after Sharpeville) as contributing to creating a platform not only to mourn the dead, but also to reassert the need to fight.
This war of aesthetics is quite obviously displayed in the photographs of the Black Sash. A suite of images by an unidentified photographer taken in the mid-’50s shows lines of well-dressed white women posing in public places, along the pavements that line busy streets, with large white boards tied to their bodies. Their signature black sashes are worn across their chests like a beauty pageant sash. They stand firm and erect as if taking part in a time-honoured ritual that echoes those that are depicted in early images of DF Malan and his cronies at official events.
Of course, the writing on the boards speaks of the dysfunction that belies this supposedly civil action: “20 000 uprooted from their homes!” The uniformity of the boards, the font and size of the letters all work towards establishing a hard line of protest that is rooted in a collective consciousness, a sort of counter force.
“People forget that the struggle for South Africa’s freedom was the struggle of all South Africans,” remarks Enwezor.
Perceiving the exhibition through the prism of this “war of aesthetics” provides insight into the politics of protest and political performance but it does place you at a dispassionate distance from the work. This is perhaps what is most troublesome about Enwezor’s approach to the material: while he may scrutinise these images, looking to identify significant “breadcrumbs”, he might be overlooking their highly emotive nature. These are photographs of death and loss, both physical and psychic, and while all photographs might communicate death in the sense that they show what has been and thus what is no longer – as per Roland Barthes’s dictum – this canon documents the pain and suffering of a nation that cannot be countered by images of dancing girls.
This is the truth of it, though we want to hold on to “defiance” as the overwhelming motif of this era.
It is the absence of a voice and a pervasive silence that unites so much of the imagery in this exhibition. Mouths are open but we cannot hear the sound coming from them. Or boards with slogans held by silent protesters. In this regard: Gideon Mendel’s 1988 image of women at a meeting to protest against Albertina Sisulu’s banning stands out. A board bearing the phrase “Mama Sisulu, Banned” is propped up in an empty chair. The women seated around appear resigned and silent.
Photographs such as this implore us to listen to them rather than look at them. “One has to see silence to realise there is one,” observed the feminist scholar Marta Zarzycka. A photographic show may put the politics of looking on display, but perhaps we should be listening to what the images cannot say.
Rise and Fall of Apartheid will show at the Museum Africa until June 29.