Louis H. Draper initiated the Black photography collective Kamoinge in Harlem in 1963, the name meaning “a group of people acting together,” along with Albert R. Fennar, James M. Mannas Jr., and Herbert Randall. Currently, the Whitney Museum exhibition “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop” presents 140 photographs by fourteen early members of the group. These participants had widely diverse geographic origins, social backgrounds, academic specialties, and technical skills. All shared, however, a will to depict the vivid complexity of the Black community, actively countering stereotypes in the era’s news media, art, and popular culture. Originally put together by associate curator Sarah L. Eckhardt of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (home of the now digitized Draper archive, acquired in 2015, which inspired this exhibition), “Working Together” focuses on the collective’s first twenty years, at the nexus of both the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements.
At the entrance of the show’s Whitney iteration, organized by assistant curator Carrie Springer with curatorial assistant Mia Matthias, a video monitor runs a 2019 documentary featuring archival footage, along with recent interviews with nine of the collective’s founding members. In Anthony Barboza’s wall-size group portrait, mounted just before the entrance to the first of three adjoining galleries, some members smile playfully, while others wear more contemplative expressions, foreshadowing the exhibition’s breadth of interests, styles, and subjects.
Barboza, the group’s youngest original member, has been one of its most dedicated archivists. His commitment to his fellow artists reinforces each of the three themes—Community, Abstraction/Surrealism, and Civil Rights—woven together to tell the story of the workshop’s development. Having arrived in New York an amateur photographer, Barboza trained in commercial photography, but he also makes images that transcend mainstream conventions. He shot Pensacola, Florida (1966), showing a dilapidated neon sign that spells out the word liberty, while stationed at a naval base not long after joining Kamoinge. Printed in black and white, the crooked letter B, a falling-down R, and a half-lit dangling E suggest, as Barboza says in the show’s introductory video, that “liberty was broken for us.” With members honing their skills in commissioned portraits, fashion photography, and photojournalism, debates inevitably arose over what subjects should be photographed, and how, as part of the celebration of Black culture. For example, does Randall’s Untitled (Lower East Side, NY), ca. 1960, an image of children playing among partially demolished tenements, strike viewers as demoralizing or simply true-to-life?
Such disputes, which continue to this day, echo a major debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain LeRoy Locke at the beginning of the twentieth century: Locke, a philosopher and educator, thought it important to show Negro lifeworlds in all their complicated humanity—the joys, pains, and even boredom of everyday life in both rural and urban locales. Du Bois, a social theorist and political activist, believed Black artists had a duty to offer only positive images of Negroes as ideal Americans.
In the Civil Rights section of the exhibition, Adger Cowans’s Malcolm Speaks (1965), an aerial view of Malcolm X addressing an outdoor gathering, hangs near Draper’s Untitled (Black Muslims), ca. 1960s, in which the leader is pictured with both a young supporter and a police officer, all three caught in a single tight frame. These images, conveying more than a shoot-and-capture dispassion, communicate the photographers’ respect for their subjects in tense situations. They make us realize that Malcolm X used his poise as a physical manifestation of his vision for a just and dignified future both on- and offstage.
Founded the same year that Kenya won independence from British rule, the Kamoinge Workshop cultivated an awareness of resistance actions against imperialism throughout the Black diaspora. Members photographed in locations from Hattiesburg, Mississippi (Randall), to Havana (Shawn Walker). Choosing the word “kamoinge” from the language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya reflects the collective’s anti-colonial, pan-Africanist ethos.
Workshop members also shared a love of all the arts from music—see Herb Robinson’s blurred, quasi-abstract Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard (1961) and his glorious Mahalia Jackson (1969) swaying on an outdoor stage—to literature, manifested in mentorship by Langston Hughes, poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, and collaboration with the later Nobel Prize–winning novelist Toni Morrison (who wrote the foreword for the group’s inaugural Black Photographers Annual, 1973). Ming Smith, the first woman admitted to the collective, studied biology and chemistry in college and was modeling in New York when she joined Kamoinge in the early 1970s. In her video interview, Smith says she uses light like a painter, and we see her nearly catching intergalactic dimensions with the flare of a spangled cape in Sun Ra space II (1978). While her surrealist portraits of the musician-conjurer were her most stunning images in the exhibition, viewers were magnetically drawn to take a closer look at Sun Breeze After the Bluing, Hoboken, NJ (ca. 1972), a shot of laundry blowing on a clothesline that evokes a brief moment of repose in a fenced-in backyard.
The Kamoinge photographers helped one another and their communities by building makeshift printing equipment, curating their own exhibitions, and teaching photography classes. Some did required military service; others risked being listed as Cold War dissidents by encouraging lifelong learning in Black neighborhoods. Cowans’s Egg Nude (1958), on view in the Abstraction/Surrealism section, represents the standard of excellence set for new members, who had to be voted in on the basis of their portfolio. The work shows a human figure coiled into an ovoid shape accentuated by a protective shadow. The body reads as grace personified, energy preparing to expand.
The Draper archive at the VMFA in his hometown of Richmond, encompassing some 50,000 images, reminds us of the Kamoinge Workshop’s familial and political ties to the American South. At the Whitney, a much smaller number of works introduce visitors to the collective, and the historicizing of it lends the feel of a long-gone past quickly receding from the present. One got the impression that Kamoinge could have thrived only in that prior era of rising Black consciousness, now long dispersed by forces that include the assassinations of key 1960s Civil Rights leaders. Fortunately, Kamoinge has reconstituted itself, and many of its earlier members are now mentors to younger generations of photographers, all continuing to work together under the auspices of the nonprofit Kamoinge Inc. amid today’s resurgent demands for social justice.