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Okwui Enwezor talks with our editor Matthew Blackman about the exhibition 'Rise and Fall of Apartheid'

By M Blackman on 19 February

Black Sash on Johannesburg's City Hall steps Taken by an unidentified photographer

Black Sash on Johannesburg's City Hall steps Taken by an unidentified photographer, . (Courtesy of Museum Africa)

World-renowned curator Okwui Enwezor talks to our editor about the exhibition he curated with Rory Bester, ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’, which is now showing at Museum Africa in Newtown Johannesburg.

Matthew Blackman:  I wanted to start with the title of the exhibition, the ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ and to start with the first concept of it, that is to say ‘the rise’ of apartheid. How is that explicated in the exhibition?

Okwui Enwezor: Well it is a fairly simple title but without the article - ‘the’ Rise. It is ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ and part of that has to do with that by removing the article ‘the’ it was very important for it not to be definitive. It is not ‘the beginning’ and ‘the end’ but instead the idea was to explore the process around which the ideological foundation of apartheid was developed and the process around which the seeming conclusion came about. So ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ was predicated on a very basic idea for me; it was to look at political history of this period and the way images came to document, reflect upon and intervene in these processes.

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Apartheid sign: Non-Europeans teller 1958-1966

Ernest Cole
Apartheid sign: Non-Europeans teller 1958-1966
Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation
© The Ernest Cole Family Trust


MB:  I think it was Walter Benjamin who said that the right-wing or Nazis had aestheticized politics, while the left-wing or communists had made art political. Is there that sense in ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’? That is to say, the sense that the apartheid regime, or the previous incarnation heading towards apartheid, used photography to politicize their point of view and do you address this in the exhibition?

OE: Well yes, we do address this in the exhibition in different ways. One thing that I would like to underscore is the fact that apartheid as a political, ideological event seemed as if it was 'camera-ready', because of how extreme its policies were and how graphic the means of the regime’s tools of social control were. And so that means that the responses to apartheid had not only to be carefully planned but they also had to be carefully choreographed. So in that planning and choreography emerges an aesthetic. If you look at the Black Sash – the way they lined up. It appears as if not only did they have a stylist, they had a choreographer in terms of the way they stood (their deportment in public), they may have had a graphic designer who did all their signs, they must have had a copywriter who wrote all of their slogans. Also you have to look at the way they placed themselves in urban space in relation to monuments and buildings. Then you look at the protest marches for example and the carnivalesque dimension of that, with songs and music and performances and the toyi-toyi and all of those kinds of things. So there was a dramatic aesthetic on the part of the opposition. But in a funny way, contrary to Benjamin’s reading of the aestheticization of politics in the work of the Nazis, the apartheid ideologues were not very sophisticated in image propaganda. In fact, having looked at many different examples, the apartheid regime had a deeply impoverished sensibility in the way images do the work of propaganda. And it may have to do with the fact that many of the early leadership of the regime were utter Victorians: they were born in the 19th century, they were deeply conservative and, of course, as the regime became more repressive it also meant they wanted to suppress all imagery. There was not television until 1976 – the visual landscape was highly censored.

Marabastad-Waterval route: for most of the people in this bus, the cycle will start again tomorrow at between 2 and 3 am

David Goldblatt
Marabastad-Waterval route: for most of the people in this bus, the cycle will start again tomorrow at between 2 and 3 am
Silver gelatin photograph on fibre-based paper
approx. 30 x 40cm


MB:  I think you have addressed the other issue I was going to ask you about: what role photography played in the fall of apartheid.  But remaining with the title, and particularly the last part of it (‘the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’), I get the sense from this of the idea of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ - the kind of everyday bureaucracy that creates evil. Is this present here?  Am I right in reading it like this?

OE:  Yes, I think it is fantastic that you are making these connections. One of the central points of my essay was really looking at the idea of the way in which apartheid moved from law to norm, how apartheid become normalized. And this shift that Foucault writes about, cautioning us to not only look at power from the point of view that it suppresses and kills and so on but that power in many ways produces reality. It produces the effects of what it represents, so that means that when you look at the exhibition, for example at Ernest Cole’s indexing of apartheid’s street signs, I don’t need to tell people that this is a Bureaucratic mechanism, but when you look at those signs – most of which use sans serif fonts – now that is the aesthetic of apartheid. As a bureaucratic typography, it is legible: it is meant to be seen from a distance and it directs and controls and places you where you need to be. I think that Cole wasn’t necessarily thinking about the typography but he was thinking about social regulation and its ubiquity and its predictability and the way it suffused every layer of life. I don’t need to show passbooks everywhere, although there is one example of a person holding up their passbook. That is another part of the bureaucracy because this document for any black subject was so essential for their existence, and without the passbook you fall into the opacity of the bureaucratic lens and therefore the passbook was the technology par excellence of social control and social diminution.

 Nurse shot on her way to work by members of the AWB, who were randomly shooting at black people in Bophuthatswana, 1994

Fanie Jason
Nurse shot on her way to work by members of the AWB, who were randomly shooting at black people in Bophuthatswana, 1994

MB: Obviously I haven’t seen the exhibition as yet, but I have read the reviews of it in New York and one of the small criticisms of it that came up was that the post-apartheid period as reflected in the exhibition was quite bleak. That is to say there are, for example, no photographs of the famous lines of the voters in the first elections and instead just signs and landscapes of decay. Do you think that is a fair criticism?

OE: I think that it is an interesting criticism; I don’t know if I think it is fair, but it is one that I understand. And in a sense I did solicit it, because it was intentional to exclude any kind of ‘Simunye. We are one’ moment. The show has a postscript and the postscript was an invitation extended to three artists/photographers. That was Sabelo Mlangeni and Thabiso Sekgala and a collective called Centre for Historical Reenactments, because it is a kind of looking back. Because what we didn’t want to do was to go and excavate the archive. The point was not to get them to look at the archive but instead to explore how the younger generation has experienced the archive of the apartheid era. The way they look at other photographers and look at landscape. So that is what we tried to do. So the so-called ending of the exhibition was deliberately bleak because this is a part of the narrative of the end of apartheid that is very hard to look at. But it was also a curatorial decision to go from the kind of social documentary, analytical approach of Afrapix to the total, unmediated and the ‘crudeness’ of the Bang Bang club pictorial immediacy, that is very raw and very emotional. I wanted to put those two things in tension and balance.

Untitled from the series: 'Train Church'

Santu Mofokeng
Untitled from the series: 'Train Church'
©Santu Mofokeng Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg


MB: It has always struck me that the photographers of the Bang Bang Club always focused in on their subjects while, largely speaking, the photography of Drum tended to take wide-angled photographs that seemed to tell a broader story. Do you agree with this?

OE: Yes, but you should also understand that Drum photographers could not necessarily be very radical, otherwise Drum would have been shut down. So you know, that too was highly controlled by the owners and editors of Drum: they had to outwit the censor; they had to outlast the invigilator of those images. So we have to also look at Drum from an editorial perspective in that a lot of the images published in Drum were also deliberately made so as not to be seen as offensive, so they were not going to rile the population. That’s why a lot of Drum focused on the good times. So there is this fantasy of the ‘golden era’, which is a kind of paradox. It is a contradiction that the golden era took place under apartheid, with jazz and showgirls and actors and singers and writers and the shebeens. So the film Come Back Africa, which is in this exhibition, is part of that fantasy. And so a goal of a show like this is to disturb some of these conclusions. But what we have tried to do is to disturb them softly without being didactic and allow for people to draw their own conclusions.

From the series: Living in Yeoville

Gideon Mendel
From the series: Living in Yeoville



MB: Where do you think is the division or some line between documentary photography and art photography? Particularly within South African Photography, do you think that there is a clear distinction?

OE: Well I think that all images made with a camera are ontologically documentary or are a document of something, of course. But when it comes to intentionality this is for me what differentiates one from the other. That is to the purpose for which images are made. A news photographer or photojournalist works within a particular visual economy: that is to say, the visual economy of the news and mass media. The artist who uses the camera works within the context of individualized and individuated pictorial formats. Images that are meant to be looked at purely for their compositional structure even though there is a subject, they, of course, might offer other information. This form of intentionality is important and then there is a hybrid too: photographers like David Goldblatt, who have had a lot of photography published in magazines, for example in Leadership magazine, but who sees himself as a free agent in that he is making the images he wants to make and they are not dependent on the demands and the exigencies of those who commissioned them. Goldblatt therefore retains some form of authorial control. This may differentiate between how these lens-based practices operate. But you can certainly see within the exhibition the genres that straddle these hybrids. The photo-essay, for example, is a particular format of deliberation that is analytical, in that it looks at a broader arc of a subject. Santu Mofokeng’s ‘Train Church’ is one such body of work. You can isolate every one of the images as distinctive and autonomous; on the other hand you can understand it more deeply when you contemplate the totality of the work. The same with David Goldblatt’s ‘The Transported of KwaNdbelele’ or Leslie Lawson’s ‘Crown Mines’ or Gideon Mendel’s ‘Living in Yeoville’ or Roger Ballen’s ‘Dorps’ or Zwelethu Mthethwa’s ‘Crossroads Series’. So you have all these different formats in the exhibition.

‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ runs until 29 June at Museum Africa in Newtown Johannesburg.

For further details on the exhibition please contact:
+27 (0)11 833 5624