Monday, December 3, 2012

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

JTF (just the facts): A large group show containing more than 500 photographs/artworks by roughly 70 photographers/artists, variously framed and matted, and hung against white, grey, and dark grey walls throughout both floors of the museum. By my likely inaccurate count, there were 509 individual photographs/artworks, 53 books/magazines/other ephemera in glass cases, 19 videos/films/slideshows, and 5 touch screens for further study. For those familiar with the layout of the museum, many of the rooms have been broken up by interior wall dividers, effectively doubling the available display space. The show generally covers the period from the late 1940s to the mid 1990s, with a small amount of older material as introductory background. The exhibit was curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester. (Installation shots at right © International Center of Photography, 2012. Photographs by John Berens and Benjamin Jarosch.)

The following photographers/artists have been included in the exhibit. The size and scope of this exhibit made tracking the size, date, process and other details of every print prohibitively time consuming. But the list itself is still noteworthy as reference:

Paul Alberts
Jane Alexander
Joe Alfers
Omar Badsha
Roger Ballen
Jodi Bieber
Robert Botha
Margaret Bourke-White
Geoff Bridgett
Andrew Browns
Kevin Carter
Ernest Cole
A.M. Duggan-Cronin
Jillian Edelstein
Christian Gbagbo
David Goldblatt
Bob Gosani
Paul Grendon
Hans Haacke
George Hallett
Gavin Jantjes
Tim Jarvis
Tim Jervis
Fanie Jason
Ranjith Kally
William Kentridge
Alf Khumalo
Tom Killoran
Lesley Lawson
Chris Ledochowski
Leon Levson
John Liebenberg
Rashid Lombard
Peter Magubane
Greg Marinovich
Peter McKenzie
Gideon Mendel
Sabelo Mlangeni
Santu Mofokeng
Billy Monk
Zwelethu Mthethwa
G.R. Naidoo
Gopal Naransamy
Themba Nkosi
Jerry Ntsipe
Cedric Nunn
Sam Nzima
Ken Oosterbrook
Adrian Piper
Douglas Pithey
Jeeva Rajgopaul
Jo Ratcliffe
Catherine Ross
Robyn Ross
Arishad Satter
Jurge Schadeberg
Wendy Schwegmann
Thabiso Sekgala
Joao Silva
Guy Tillim
Unidentified
Gille de Vlieg
Noel Watson
Eli Weinberg
Paul Weinberg
Dan Weiner
Graeme Williams
Sue Williamson
Gisele Wolfson
 
Comments/Context: So I was roughly two hours into my visit of the densely engrossing and thoroughly captivating Rise and Fall of Apartheid exhibit when it finally dawned on me: I was still winding my way through the main floor and the show continued down the stairs and throughout the lower level. Oh no. There was no possible way I could absorb that much more material in one go without turning into a glassy eyed zombie. Worn out already, I reluctantly gave in and went home gloriously and unceremoniously defeated. Committed to vanquishing this unruly beast of a show, I returned to the museum a few weeks later with fresher legs and more available hours to finish it off. I tell you this cautionary tale not to scare you away, but to set your expectations for what you're getting yourself into when you visit this tremendous exhibit. You are either superhuman or delusional if you think you can see it all in one swing through the galleries. My advice is don't even try; tear it off in smaller chunks and pace yourself so you can follow the complex threads and ideas that are so smartly woven together.
 
At the highest level, this is a chronologically organized history lesson in pictures, starting in 1948 with the election of the National Party and the installation of the apartheid regime and ending in the 1990s with the termination of those same policies, the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the election of a new democratically-formed government. It's a wide ranging story of politics and race, resistance and struggle, crowded trials and peaceful protests, angry riots and brutal violence, told almost entirely through photographic imagery. While the historical flashpoints might be familiar to many (the Treason trial, the Freedom Charter, the Sharpeville shootings, the Soweto uprising, the Biko funeral, the Mandela release, the 1994 elections), what is new here is an examination of the image making that surrounded these events and an investigation of how that imagery evolved over time. It's possible to simultaneously read the exhibit as straight history, and to go down a level and consider the different approaches, styles and artistic interests of the various individual photographers.
 
Most of what is on view here might fall under the heading of traditional photojournalism or documentary photography, albeit perhaps with a modifier like concerned, engaged, or social to precede and amplify it. Curators Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester have taken the best of this genre (much of it made by talented South African photographers who were first hand witnesses to the events) and mixed it together with relevant commercial and magazine imagery, photo essays, and fine art photographs of the same decade-long periods, bringing it all together in a rich, multi-layered portrait of both the relevant clashes and the changing underlying social fabric.
 
Much of the imagery from the 1950s is centered on nonviolent protest: Nelson Mandela in traditional beads, Mandela sparring to burn off energy from sitting in court all day, wide shots of crowds and onlookers, the sober protests (carrying signs, holding candles) of the Black Sash women. By the 1960s, the apartheid policies had become more entrenched and the visual evidence of the separation of races had become more stark. Black culture found outlets in dance clubs, Drum magazine, pinup girls, and the songs of Miriam Makeba, but Ernest Cole's images of blacks being searched, fingerprinted, and handcuffed are a grim reminder of the perils of everyday life at that time; a grid of his images of segregated facilities at dry cleaners, bank tellers, rest rooms and delivery entrances shows just how pervasive the divide was. Alf Khumalo's image of white men riding around in a pickup truck with an ample supply of guns and growling German Shepherds is particularly nasty, while Peter Magubane's endless line of coffins at the Sharpeville funeral foreshadows the escalating human costs to more militant struggle. The juxtaposition of Billy Monk's leering white clubgoers at the Catacombs and Magubane's lineup of black men enduring a group medical exam is harshly vivid.
 
The section on the 1970s is dominated by images of the Soweto uprising. Police cars shoot at passersby, young men throw stones and use trash can lids as makeshift shields, rioters and police face off, and corpses start to pile up. Sam Nzima's photographs of a bloody child being carried and loaded into a car are both tragic and incendiary. Themba Nkosi captures bored police officers on a smoke break after another round of evictions, an overlooked dead body lying in the dust nearby. And Noel Watson documents police dogs angrily barking at a young man singled out of a crowd, his fingers held up in peace signs.
 
As the exhibit moves downstairs and the calendar moves to the 1980s, the story gets more complex, less linear, and more diffuse. Hans Haacke mixes Steve Biko's dead body into a series of mock opera posters sponsored by Alcan. Guy Tillim watches the burning black smoke of ruined settlements and the clashes of axe wielding crowds. Cedric Nunn follows mourning, from a bride and groom at graveside to a mother covered in a blanket. David Goldblatt tracks long distance commuters, waiting at stops in the darkness and sleeping on overcrowded buses. University students are organized, fists are raised at funerals, prayer meetings are held, bodies are grimly dumped into mass graves, white settlers reenact the Great Trek, and black nannies tend white children. And it all takes place to the endlessly repeated refrain of Ain't Gonna Play Sun City (that MTV staple from the mid 1980s) playing in the background. The tiny back room is the venue for the 1990s end of the story, where Mandela's triumphant return is flanked by political opponents knifing each other, red smears on the sidewalk, and a nurse lying in a bloody pool outside a chicken shack. Famed photojournalist James Nachtwey ducks for cover in a street battle, crowds gather with hatchets raised, and cars are riddled with bullets. Ruthless intensity seems to have been turned up a notch with the struggle for political control more fluid and wide open.
 
On the whole, I think the exhibit can be evaluated on at least two levels: how it does as history and how it does as art. On the history front, it is undeniably sweeping, evocative, enthralling, and decently comprehensive; personally, I could have used a bit more explanatory wall text to give further context to the key players and events and to connect the dots between the decades, but this may be somewhat due to the wide gaps in my own historical knowledge. My other minor criticism is that the nuanced social backstory gets a bit crowded out by the drama of the resistance footage; while I'm not sure I am advocating an even larger exhibit exactly, I do feel like this angle gets less of a thesis than it deserves. On the question of art quality, my headline takeaway is just how full of superlative imagery this exhibit is; there are literally dozens of compelling, challenging, and memorable images on display here taken by photographers who will be entirely unknown to most viewers. It's an inclusive, broad-based show, and that diversity is one of its strengths. But in the end, it's a parade of searing, unflinching, sometimes painful photographs that will leave you suffocated and overwhelmed. So take my advice, plan your visit thoughtfully and allow enough time for a second or third trip; that way you will be undeniably foot weary, visually overloaded and soul wrenched, but at least you won't have to give up midstream. 
 
Collector's POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Given the wide range of artists on view, many of which are generally unknown outside South Africa, I'm going to dispense with the usual collector-driven secondary market analysis.
 
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
 
Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: John Edwin Mason (here), NY Times (here), New Yorker (here), Guardian (here), Daily Beast (here), ARTNews (here), Artforum (here)
Through January 6th
 
1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

2 comments:

Pete McGovern said...

It once seemed impossible that anything would change in South Africa - and the UK and US administrations did little to help things along in reality, having too many stratetic and financial vested interests. It's clearly a but a comparable post-apartheid Palestinian show to this won't happen for a very long time.

Unfortunately not all of the South African story can be accompanied by photographs.

Anonymous said...

thanks for share.