In South Africa, apartheid institutionalized racial segregation in every facet of life and the struggle against it took many forms. From the outset, photography was a critical element both in documenting the impact of the system and the resistance to it.
The International Center of Photography has put together an extraordinarily wide-ranging exhibition that spans the Afrikaner nationalist ascension to power in 1948 through Nelson Mandela’s assumption of the presidency in 1993.
An expatriate, I was accompanied to the center by a current Johannesburg resident who was less than unenthusiastic about spending precious limited time in New York at an exhibition entitled “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid.” However we were both absorbed and moved and would have liked to have more time than the two hours that we’d allocated.
Curators Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester have assembled an array of work by well-known South African photographers such as Peter Magubane, David Goldblatt and Jurgen Schadeburg and by photographers you’ve probably never heard of, 70 artists in all. Most of them worked in black and white.
At the entrance of the exhibit, a video of De Klerk’s watershed 1989 speech unbanning the ANC is rolling. As you move through the opening galleries, De Klerk’s voice constitutes a curiously juxtaposed soundtrack for the Treason Trial several decades earlier. The young Mandela of this period was entirely unknown to generations of white schoolchildren.
The apartheid struggle was essentially one of black vs. Afrikaner, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s. Yet from the very beginning, you can’t but notice the names of people identified in the photographs: Mary Turok, Rose Schachter, Shulamit Muller, Leon and Norman Levy, all of whom were associated with the Treason Trial either as defendants, spouses or lawyers.
And then there were the photographers themselves: Eli Weinberg’s work in the ’30s and ’40s, Dan Weiner in the ’40s, David Goldblatt from the ’60s. Among the contemporary artists: Gideon Mendel, the late Giselle Wulfsohn, Paul Weinberg, Jillian Edelstein. As whites moved to the periphery in terms of active politics, Jewish artists continued to bear witness.
Images range from posters to press photographs. Sue Williamson’s series on the town of Cradock stands out. She presents two Cradocks: one the Cradock of the local city council, “white” Cradock, and the other that of Matthew Goniwe, one of the “Cradock Four” assassinated in 1985.
An extraordinary photo of Steve Biko’s open coffin that I had never seen before remains with me. Sam Nzima’s iconic photo of Hector Pieterson, shot on June 16, 1976, is all too familiar yet retains its power.
Amid the horror that was apartheid, all is not dark. Billy Monk’s work focusing on edgy white Capetonians in the Catacombs has a Felliniesque quality.
The exhibition is vast, and visitors would do well to allow sufficient time for it. Apart from the photographs, videos, including the well-known William Kentridge series, are available for viewing.
At this time when many of us are confronting memory, I found myself thinking of the words of Chile’s Jose Zalaquett, who worked with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “Identity is memory. Identities forged out of half-remembered things or false memories easily commit transgressions.”
The images in this body of work are searing, compelling, occasionally humorous, embarrassing and always truthful.
“The Rise and Fall of Apartheid” runs through Jan. 6, 2013, ICP, 1133 Sixth Ave. (at 43rd Street), (212) 857-0000, icp.org.