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Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life

Various Artists at Haus der Kunst

By Steven Dubin
15 February - 26 May. 0 Comment(s)
Crowd near the Drill Hall on the opening day of the Treason Trial,

Eli Weinberg
Crowd near the Drill Hall on the opening day of the Treason Trial,, 1956. Photograph .

Throngs of South African protestors are on the march once again: surging along streets, spilling down stairwells, defiantly rising up against uniformed men armed with sjamboks, guns, and deeply dyspeptic scowls. But the site is neither the Goodman Gallery nor the Marikana mine. Rather, it's the International Center of Photography [ICP] in midtown Manhattan, host to ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ (September 14, 2012 - January 6, 2013). Co-curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester, this show boasts 800 images - the largest number the ICP has ever displayed - and sprawls over the two levels of the museum. In addition to photographs, it includes books, magazines, slide shows, video, film, prints, and drawings, and is by turns revelatory, naughty, meditative, unsettling, playful and also confusing.

The size of ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ is both a blessing and a curse: the sheer wealth of material enlightens as much as it engulfs the viewer. Every imaginable space has been mobilized for display, from a double-story wall that bisects the floors, to the passageway alongside the coffee shop. South African visual culture of all sorts is in evidence, to the point that it becomes a sensory overload.

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The exhibition subtitle ‘Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ leads visitors to expect to see how the draconian dictates of government pervaded the minutiae of people's lives. And, in fact, certain evidence does just that. A series of nine images taken by Ernest Cole between 1958 and 1966 captures signage that publicized some of the vast web of regulations which sustained the unremitting separation of racial groups. In one powerful shot, Non-Europeans teller, a white bank employee suspiciously eyes the scene from over the top of his wooden and glass enclosure, while a black man has approached from the opposite side. It is the photographic equivalent of the surrealistic mid-century renderings of urban anxiety, alienation, claustrophobia and fear by American painter George Tooker. Moreover, the fresh-faced officer in Noel Watson's Police carrying out evictions, removing belongings (n.d.) embodies the tragedy of forced removals. The fact that we cannot definitively identify the type of uniform the young man is wearing or the precise date and location simply underscores the anonymity and ruthlessness of the process.

But images such as these are a rarity in 'Rise and Fall of Apartheid', puzzlingly enough. Depicted in abundance is the overt resistance to and defiance of the regime; the quotidian moments of life throughout the economic and racial hierarchies; and the profusion of cultural responses to oppression and segregation. In Alf Khumalo's risqué The Girliest Girl Show (1962), for example, five shapely gals in bikinis teasingly mug for the camera, while Jurgen Schadeberg's familiar Miriam Makeba (1955) poses before an elevated microphone, her closed eyes, drooping shoulder straps and tensed legs simulating an orgasmic moment.

Whites are broadly represented. Billy Monk's Catacomb Club habitués frolic, preen and pose through an alcoholic haze in the 1960s, whereas the three women sitting at a Europeans-only bus stop in Tim Jarvis's 1983 photograph taken in Johannesburg project the opposite vibe: they appear nervously wary, one seems about to explode with fury, and all of them tightly clutch their purses to their bodies. Gideon Mendel's Woman with her German shepherd guard dog at a security gate in the suburb of Sandringham, Johannesburg (1984) likewise documents what maintaining a high degree of continual vigilance actually looked like: a ferocious dog lunges at the intruder/photographer, teeth bared and with its enormous front paws poking through the bars of a sturdy metal security gate. A self-satisfied hausfrau, hand on hip, smugly looks on. The 'swart gevaar' that underlay such scenes is vividly evoked by snippets from the 1938 film Bou Ven 'n Nasie [We Build a Nation], shown during the centenary year of the Great Trek: the slaughter of Piet Retief and his men at the hands of crazed Zulu hoards is dramatically drawn out.

Of particular significance are seven images from Mendel's controversial 1988 Beloofde Land [Promised Land] series featuring the sesquicentennial reenactments of the Great Trek. Rarely exhibited - when they were first shown, some critics were dismayed by their open-ended interpretive quality while others objected that they seemed to celebrate rather than condemn Afrikaner nationalists - these photos reveal the fervor and folly of the festivities. Mendel's ingenuous pastor preaching to a starkly empty landscape is tragicomic, whereas the throngs of youngsters performing synchronised gymnastic exercises before a sparse audience in a sports stadium - on their knees, arms extended widely, heads pointed toward heaven - are stand-ins for any army of blind ideologues, robotic true believers in the making. In stark opposition to these supplicants are the white matrons of the Black Sash who were captured by various photographers, once again holding silent witness against repression and injustice, well-appointed with prim fashions, sensible shoes and a keen sense of moral outrage.

Black faces predominate in this exhibition, however. One of the key images appears early on: Leon Levson’s Johannesburg photographer, Ferreirastown (c.1940s) shows a man plying his trade on a shabby street, snapping a man wrapped in a blanket, Derby hat, and fancy-trimmed pants, while a stylishly dressed young woman and a chap on a bicycle look on. Urban and rural comingle as Africans actively cultivate a multitude of identities. Elsewhere, a multi-racial cadre of women ascends the steps of the Union Buildings in 1956; Mandela walks into the Treason Trial proceedings that same year wearing a broad smile; and supporters of him and his co-accused defiantly gather outside. Crowd near the Drill Hall on the day of the Treason Trial, Johannesburg (unidentified photographer, 1956) also offers a glimpse of the complicated social relationships that apartheid generated, the emotionally-wrought jumble of familiarity and distance: within a crowd of conservatively dressed Africans wearing large signs around their necks declaring 'WE STAND BY OUR LEADERS', a pre-adolescent white boy huddles awkwardly, likely carted along to this historic scene by his nanny.

There are tranquil glimpses of life, too. Gisèle Wulfsohn's Domestic worker, Illovo, Johannesburg (1987) captures a maid with her back to the viewer, carefully dusting a windowsill. She has ducked behind a sheer curtain, a shadow figure who miraculously manages the operation of her employer’s household. The woman in Cedric Nunn’s A mother mourns the death of her son, a supporter of the United Democratic Front, in the ‘Natal War,’ Mpophomeni, KwaZulu-Natal (1987) is shrouded as well and yet emits a painfully strong impression: her wearied body is completely enveloped by a plaid blanket, its fringe dangling over her downcast head like stray strands of hair, like a traditional bridal veil. Her profound loss pervades the sparsely furnished room.

But for me, the most powerful image within this vast collection is by Sam Nzima, from the 1976 Soweto Uprising. It’s not what you would suspect, however. Nzima’s photo of the mortally-wounded Hector Pietersen being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, while Pietersen’s horrified sister Antoinette Sithole runs alongside, is arguably the most famous South African photograph.

‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ includes both it and a subsequent frame from that fateful event, this one showing Makhubo carefully lifting Pietersen into Nzima’s VW in order to transport him to medical help. Here the boy’s symbolic status becomes attenuated; an icon is revived as flesh and blood, in a manner of speaking. Pietersen is once again a real child, freshly observed, in a catastrophic situation. In the more familiar photo, these three children appear isolated from the world; in the second, masses of kids run towards the camera, restoring the chaotic quality of that momentous June 16th. It is a devastating punch-in-the-gut.

To its credit, ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ includes relatively unknown or seldom shown photographers, including G.R. Naidoo, Bob Gosani, Gopal Naransamy, Christian Gbagbo, Jerry Ntsipe, Rashid Lombard and Gille de Vlieg. But the central curatorial strategy is somewhat mystifying. The exhibition opens with dual video screens, one featuring newsreel footage of D.F. Malan’s victory speech in 1948, the other, F.W. de Klerk’s announcement of the unbanning of Nelson Mandela in 1990, thereby presumably staking out the temporal boundaries of the exhibition. Yet some of Alfred Duggan-Cronin’s Bantu studies from the 1920s and ‘30s are featured just a few feet away. The curators explain in wall text that apartheid triggered a new form of pictorial documentary style, making these earlier works seem awkwardly out of place. They would be better used as contrastive evidence in an in-depth catalogue essay.

Moreover, the expansiveness of this exhibition creates some very strange juxtapositions. For example, Jurgen Schadeberg’s small-scale, haunting series on the San Trance Dance (1959) appears directly across from racy images of beauty queens and pop culture idols. And some of the curators’ choices are simply inexplicable: how do Sabelo Mlangeni’s barely-peopled scenes (2010-11) and Thabiso Sekgala’s stark landscapes (2009-10) fit within the tropes of 'apartheid' or 'bureaucracy'? Or selections from Zwelethu Mthethwa’s mysterious and arty X-Roads series (1985), Roger Ballen’s unadorned 'dorpies' (1982-85), or even William Kentridge’s films, for that matter, which address the enduring legacies and memories of apartheid, to be sure, but not in a conventional documentary style?

Enwezor and Bester appear to have fallen prey to their own passion for this material; you get the sense they did not have the heart to cull any type of imagery that passed their gaze. So if you attend ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ expecting a precisely focused exhibition, you could find yourself grousing a bit. But in the end, the curators’ 'mission drift' wins you over. Enwezor and Bester have assembled a cavalcade of history-making events and run-of-the-mill personal moments, outsized personalities alongside anonymous, everyday women and men. ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ showcases drama, humour, and every human emotion imaginable. It is a bit like a precocious but unruly learner, charming and annoying you at the same time. 

Steven C. Dubin directs the arts administration program at Columbia University, New York. His most recent book is Spearheading Debate: Culture Wars and Uneasy Truces (Jacana, 2012).