Photographs and films present a rich account of SA from 1948 and beyond

2014-02-09 06:00

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From the Sharpeville Massacre to the release of Mandela, the exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life depicts both dramatic events and daily life under apartheid, writes Catarina Monteiro.

After successful runs in Munich, Milan and New York, The exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is travelling to Joburg.

A rich, dynamic collection of photographs and films presents the viewer with a look back in time, starting in 1948 with the rise of the National Party.

More than 500 images, 27 films and a book depict South African life and history – from the daily difficulties under apartheid, the violence and the protests, to moments of liberation and the climax that was the first democratic election in 1994.

Here is a selection of 21 stunning images from the exhibition:

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Included are iconic photographs: among them, Peter Magubane’s photograph of two policeman standing in the street, dead bodies scattered around them in Sharpeville on March 21 1960; Sam Nzima’s photograph of the dying Hector Pieterson, shot by police and carried by a fellow student on June 16 1976 in Soweto as his sister runs alongside, crying for help; and the historically momentous image of Nelson Mandela walking free from Victor Verster Prison near Paarl on February 11 1990.

© Graeme Williams – Nelson Mandela with Winnie Mandela as he is released from Victor Verster Prison near Paarl, on February 11 1990

But there are others that show the daily grind of apartheid, the tedium and frustration in everyday life.

For example the famed Ernest Cole took a photograph, circa 1958-1960, which simply depicts a black man going to the bank.

Next to him a sign reads “Non-Europeans Teller.”

The white man behind the counter tentatively peers over it, perhaps resenting his position for the day.

Another particularly poignant photograph taken in 1956 by a young Peter Magubane conveys this effectively. We see a toddler sitting on a “Europeans Only” bench while her nanny lingers behind her, fussing affectionately with her charge’s hair, yet prohibited from sitting alongside her.

Such nuanced photographs are not overshadowed by the imagery of events such as the Soweto Uprising. Instead they work alongside each other, interwoven to present the viewer with a balanced and holistic visual account of apartheid.

Steven Dubin, in Art Throb, calls the exhibition “a cavalcade of history-making events, and run-of-mill personal moments, outsized personalities alongside anonymous, everyday women and men. Rise and Fall of Apartheid showcases drama, humour, and every human emotion imaginable.”

The curators of the exhibition are Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester.

Okwui Enwezor is a widely renowned name in the global art world. He is currently Director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, an adjunct curator at the International Centre of Photography, and has recently been appointed the director of the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Rory Bester is an art historian, art critic and documentary filmmaker. Based at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Wits School of Arts in Johannesburg, he has co-curated exhibitions in Denmark, Germany, South Africa, Sweden and the US.

The magnitude of the Rise and Fall of Apartheid exhibition necessitated a huge amount of research. It took more than 10 years to construct, with Enwezor sifting through government archives across South Africa, as well as searches for photographs in universities, newspapers, magazines and private homes. The result was a collection of around 30 000 pieces, which he whittled down to just over 500.

This painstaking research has paid off. Writes Holland Cotter in the review for the New York Times: “…the material brought together is rich, its arrangements provocative and its ideas morally probing. In short, it’s really something to see, and I urge you to.”

The exhibition is, for the most part, put together chronologically. The first few images demonstrate a photographic evolution in South Africa, as the purpose of the photography quickly turns from the aesthetic – wherein there was little intention of communicating a particular message, political or otherwise – to the political, employed as a means of conveying the severity of life under the apartheid government.

As Enwezor notes, heavy censorship on television news made it necessary for photography to act as an alternate source of information.

It was unlikely that the brutality of events such as the Sharpeville massacre would be disseminated locally or internationally by the apartheid government; thus those fighting in the struggle relied heavily on the likes of Sam Nzima, David Goldblatt, Peter Magubane and Ernest Cole to photograph these events and share them with the world.

Goldblatt spoke about Cole (who died in America in 1990) in an interview with Art News: “He set out to tell the world what it was like to be a black person living under apartheid … Most of his work was self-assigned with the idea of getting it published abroad. It was too hot to be published in South Africa.”

As apartheid escalated in severity, with liberation movements banned, prison policy reaching new heights of brutality and struggle leaders like Nelson Mandela incarcerated, the photographs seem to change, becoming more frantic, and illustrating more and more violence.

Photographers working on the ground were able to provide a raw and honest account of apartheid from the perspective of citizens fighting for liberation.

In the New York Times, Cotter wrote that if the exhibition had been put on 20 years ago, perhaps it would have had more of an optimistic slant to it, an upbeat end as people looked to a future of liberation.

However “perhaps enough time has passed for realism, if not quite disillusionment, to set in”.

Events such as the 1994 election are limited to a small area, portrayed as “just another event in the story of a country still suffering the long-term effects of institutionalised racism”.

But perhaps that honesty in the exhibition is what makes it educational, showing South Africa that there are still many faults to remedy before its people can truly move on.

» The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, will open at Museum Africa (131 Bree Street, Newtown, Joburg) on February 13 and close on 29 June.

The opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday between 9am and 5pm. Entrance is free.

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