The history of South Africa’s apartheid era was documented on a dayby- day basis by the people who lived through it. Now that history is on view in a remarkable exhibition, Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City through January 6, 2013.
Apartheid arose in 1948 when the right-wing National Party took control of the South African government. As one walks through the exhibition, a rich selection of mainly black-and-white photographs shows the system at its most intrusive and dehumanizing. The intimacy of these images reveals the dangers of being part of the story; in addition, the parallel universe of black life is captured by the mainly black photographers who had access to the homes, clubs and alternative systems created by the marginalized citizens.
Curator Okwui Enwezor, who is director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, spent over six years on the formidable task of finding and organizing the images of nearly 70 photographers, filmmakers and artists (nearly all of them South Africans) to lay out the realities of apartheid. With the assistance of Johannesburg-based art historian, critic and filmmaker Rory Bester, Enwezor grouped some 500 still images, artworks, films, videos and ephemera into the various periods of apartheid — from its declaration in 1948 with the Orwellian statement that it was a neighborly system for separating people (apart meaning “separate” and heid meaning “neighborhood”), through the decades of its escalation into a system of absolute segregation along racial and ethnic lines. In the process, the ruling white Afrikaners made life hell for the black majority and codified every aspect of that process until it became a crime to do almost anything as a black person in that country. The subtitle of the exhibition points out the pain inflicted by South Africa’s bureaucracy.
According to Enwezor, South African photographers were crucially involved in capturing apartheid; many of them were the targets of that very system. They immediately recognized the need to record every aspect of the intrusion in people’s daily lives. The excesses of the system were not only evident in its most brutal moves but also in the daily physical wear and tear it inflicted, like water dripping endlessly on a stone. For example, David Goldblatt’s well-known photographs — taken on buses that carried workers on two- or three-hour daily trips to the “white cities,” with some forced to stand the whole way — show the inequities of the system as much as the images of police and soldiers firing into unarmed crowds.
More of this article can be read in the Winter 2012 issue.