Okwui Enwezor has come to appreciate at least one quality of South Africa’s notorious Department of Information—or, as the Nigeria-born curator likes to say, “Ministry of Disinformation.” Like most repressive regimes, it was rigorous about its record-keeping.
“The inquiry of this exhibition,” Enwezor declares, “is to explore the degree to which photography was present at the scene of the crime.”
The exhibition includes films, publications, and other printed materials in addition to photographs by well-known names, including Roger Ballen, Peter Magubane, Kevin Carter, Guy Tillim, and Santu Mofokeng, along with many more who are not known in this country at all. Though such foreign photojournalists as Margaret Bourke-White appear in the show, the vast majority of the 70-plus photographers represented are South African. “Very few places in the world produced photographers in such numbers,” Enwezor says. “They were not on assignment. They had all the time in the world. Most were underground, they lived there, they knew the back streets, how to get into certain areas.”
Exploring the way these images were created, circulated, and ultimately used as regime-changers is the mission of the show. “The role of photography in the struggle against apartheid is far larger than we can really imagine,” Enwezor says. “It became one of the most persuasive, instrumental, ideological tools.”
At a time when museums have been rethinking the way they present art from regions beyond traditional centers of power—a process Enwezor has pioneered and championed—the relatively small shadow cast by apartheid in the cultural sphere shows how much territory remains to be explored. “We see so many exhibitions on Europe and D-Day,” he says. “I want people to take away that there are multiple theaters of history.”
In this country, it seems, apartheid-era photography is slowly coming into the spotlight, as two artists in the ICP show are slated for presentations at American art museums in the coming year. The first, opening at SFMOMA in December, is “South Africa in Apartheid and After.” It’s a collaboration between photo curator Sandra Phillips and David Goldblatt, éminence gris of South African photographers, who chose the work of two of his countrymen, Ernest Cole and Billy Monk, to hang alongside his own.
Cole sometimes worked with former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, then the paper’s Johannesburg correspondent, on commissions. But most of his work “was self-assigned, with the idea of getting it published abroad,” Lelyveld recounted on the phone from the Democratic National Convention. “It was too hot to be published in South Africa.” On the pretext that he was going on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Cole left the country, and brought his photos to Magnum. The result was the book House of Bondage, published by Random House in 1967 and soon banned in South Africa. “It got a lot of attention, but attention lasts for 15 minutes,” says Lelyveld. “Then Ernest was stranded. He never found a path to go forward.” Though Lelyveld, who had been expelled from South Africa in 1966, helped smuggle out Cole’s negatives, they later disappeared when Cole drifted into homelessness in New York. The photographer died in poverty in 1990.
The ICP exhibition marks his first U.S. showing. “He certainly had an eye, and applied it in a place that was quite extraordinary, especially in South Africa at that time,” says Goldblatt, describing the portraits as having “an intimacy that went beyond the obvious.”
These upcoming projects reflect a shift back in time from the post-apartheid era, which has been widely showcased in U.S. art museums in recent years. “The focus on post-apartheid strikes me as a-historical, in a weird way,” says Enwezor. “This exhibition is really to shift the focus slightly in a different direction.”
He argues that while photography of course existed in South Africa before apartheid, South African photography emerged in 1948. Pre-apartheid photography “in many ways was the province of the dominant European gaze on the African world,” Enwezor says, reflecting a kind of frisson in recording “the border of civility and primitivism.” That border collapsed after 1948, the year the government policy of racial segregation began, and a more indigenous style of photography “came to assert its place in the field of vision.”
As he brought the images together, Enwezor was struck by the transformations they document. Gestures change from the thumbs-up of the early nonviolent protests to the raised, clenched fist of the activists of the ’60s and beyond. The language of protest signs, which get their own section in the show, evolves from “dialogue to confrontation.” The funeral space becomes a locus not only of mourning but also of solidarity.
The country hasn’t produced so many conceptual artists, Goldblatt notes. “There is a fine-art movement here but it’s much more muted than it is in the States,” comments the photographer, who founded Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop in 1989. “People here take photos here largely because they’ve got something to say about this place and their lives.”
“The situation here is quite grim,” he continues. “We’re going to have to face some very serious social questions that won’t be easily solved or ameliorated. I’ve no doubt this will stimulate an outpouring of anger and frustration.
“I have no doubt,” he adds, “we’ll see photography that will attempt to deal with some of these things.”