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Interview with Okwui Enwezor

By Brian Sholis

This is the last weekend to view the exhibition “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life” at New York’s International Center of Photography, which closes on January 6. The show, curated by Okwui Enwezor with Rory Bester, examines the manifold legacies of the apartheid system through some five hundred photographs, films, books, magazines, newspapers, and other archival documents. The densely packed exhibit offers insights into many aspects of South African society during the second half of the twentieth century. Aperture spoke with Enwezor about the exhibition, the relationship between the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, and about how this exhibition aligns with other shows on African themes he has presented at New York institutions.

Greame Williams, Nelson Mandela with Winnie Mandela as he is released from the Victor Vester Prison, 1990. Courtesy the artist. © Greame Williams.

Brian Sholis: The exhibition’s title, Rise and Fall of Apartheid, is fairly self-explanatory, but for people who haven’t seen the exhibition, the subtitle, Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, might benefit from a little bit of explanation. Can you elaborate on it?

Okwui Enwezor: Apartheid necessarily had to be constructed in order to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. Structures of regulation, structures of invigilation, structures of control, as well as the reformulation of identity, citizenship, the ability of people to circulate through space—the entire geography of apartheid, in a sense, was conceived purely to change what was a legislative document into a normative construct. Bureaucracy was key to these linked developments. The goal was to make sure everyone understood very clearly that if you were white, you lived in a particular neighborhood, while if you were black you lived in another, and if you were colored you lived in yet another. Each provided its own set of amenities: buses, trains, sidewalks, etc. There came to be an understanding across all of South Africa’s social, cultural, and political life that these orders of regulation had become the orders of everyday life.

Photography, in a sense, was a core instrument for making all of these new things normative. It was a way to document, to make visible, that which was about to be disappeared into a kind of normative experience. But let me make one important point that is essential to understanding the relationship between photography and the bureaucracy of everyday life, and to how we understand apartheid: South African photography was invented more or less on the eve of the juridical apartheid state. It accompanies the shift away from the colonial space…

BJS: …the anthropological space…

OE: Yes, away from the anthropological approach of depicting African life.

BJS: While the majority of the photographs in the show depict resistance to this new normative structure, you make a point of including depictions of white society. These are the people who are on top in this society, who enjoy the greatest freedoms. How important was it for you to include such scenes?

OE: We wanted to be careful, so far as was possible, to avoid a narrative of victimhood. I don’t think the exhibition is about victims and oppressors, but is rather about modes of subject formation, modes of production, modes of subjectivity. The deracination of subjectivity was at the very core of the apartheid regime.

It’s also important to remember that resistance to apartheid was a multiracial effort. The people who were most dispossessed in that society would most fear gathering on the barricades, you know, while those who were not victimized by the regime could still be angry with it. The movement to end apartheid reflected the intricacies and complexities of life in South Africa, and our exhibition hopefully reflects them with equal nuance. Apartheid was a society-changing event for both whites and blacks, so in that sense it was very important to be able to present all of its dimensions in the show.

Alf Khumalo, South Africa goes on trial. Police and crowd outside court. The whole world was watching when the three major sabotage trials started in Pretoria, Cape Town and Maritzburg. Outside the palace of Justice during the Rivonia Trial, 1963. Courtesy of Baileys African History Archive. © Baileys African History Archive.

However, the exhibition is not limited to protest pictures. The corrosiveness of the system affected other areas, and is reflected in other photographic genres—in landscapes, for example, and the absences and silences that haunt the spaces captured by photographers’ lenses. Consider David Goldblatt’s images of the destruction of District Six, or Roger Ballen’s pictorial essay on the small towns of South Africa.

BJS: The events that might be most familiar to American viewers—such as the Sharpeville Massacre, the Soweto Uprising, and the end of the system from 1991 to 1994—do not dominate the show in the way they dominate the public consciousness outside of South Africa.

OE: We all know that photography is an instrument crucial to the production of icons, and there are iconic moments that are etched into our collective consciousness. War is one of those moments. But I think that, for example, the Sharpeville massacre also resonated because it occured in the midst of the American civil rights movement. Albert Lutuli, president of the African National Congress, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, and he cosigned a letter with Martin Luther King, Jr. that outlined the links between the African-American struggle in the United States and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. So it makes sense that we have focused inordinately on those iconic markers.

But I think the epic trajectory of the anti-apartheid movement can be found in the little stories, in small events. Taken cumulatively, everyday acts of resistance, by people now obscure to history, create real change—and it’s these kinds of stories I wanted to encourage viewers to explore. There is the subject of a picture, and then there is the background or periphery; we were extremely curious to learn what kinds of narratives or ideas are embedded in photographs.

One of the things we discerned has to do with the idea of hand gestures. You can tell the story of resistance through the evolution of hand gestures. In the 1950s, the thumbs-up was a way of expressing solidarity. It was a moment in which people still believed in the power of nonviolence, in negotiation. And then Sharpeville happens in 1960, and this gesture of solidarity turns into one of defiance: the clenched fist. The more oppressive the apartheid regime became, the more defiant the resistance became. The clenched first becomes the raised weapons of self-defense. And then, of course, in 1994 everything transitions once again and we see the “V” for victory, the peace sign. These kinds of micro-narratives are lodged within the photographs. Another has to do with funerals: you can see in the settings of funeral photographs the ways that these ceremonies were deployed as ideological communication, both to the community of South Africans and to the world at large.

Jurgen Schadeberg, The 29 ANC Women’s League women are being arrested by the police for demonstrating against the permit laws, which prohibited them from entering townships without a permit, 26th August 1952. Courtesy the artist.

Peter Magubane, Sharpeville Funeral: More than 5,000 people were at the graveyard, May 1960. Courtesy Baileys African History Archive.

BJS: I would like to return to the relationship of the anti-apartheid movement and the civil rights movement. Scholars like Maurice Berger have been reassessing the visual culture of the civil rights movement in recent years. Given that this show is being presented in America, what other lessons, if any, might be found in this exhibition that can help us understand the visual culture of the civil rights movement?

OE: Well, first of all, I think the civil rights movement should be seen alongside and as part of African de-colonization movements. Together they comprise the key development of the middle of the twentieth century. This goes back to issues of subjectivity, as these movements represent both a belief in the modern category of the self and tensions between subjecthood and citizenship. It is these tensions, between subject and citizen, which most strongly link the two movements. There were, of course, great differences. In America the civil rights movement was linked to the church, whereas in South Africa anti-apartheid was almost entirely secular—and was even linked to the Communist party, something that would have been unimaginable in the United States.

BJS: That was certainly not possible in the mid-1950s to the late ’60s.

OE: So perhaps the anti-apartheid movement was a little bit more revolutionary, in terms of its political spirit and its identification with proletariat identities. But visually, in terms of iconographic depiction, the two movements are uncannily similar—right down to the way people dress. The pressed suit, the need to project an image of respectability . . . . I always wonder who was the creative director of the protests organized by the Black Sash Women. They must have had one, and a copywriter for all of their protest signs, and a choreographer for their movements, and a stylist—it’s such a complete performance. Think, too, of the American notion of linking arms, singing protest songs and spirituals…

BJS: It’s counterintuitive to think that a mass movement would be so image-conscious, but on both sides of the Atlantic, protesters seemed to know that visual media could be an assistive technology.

OE: And on the other hand, the apartheid state’s media consciousness was very crude; the political regime was unable to manage the deployment of propaganda extolling its virtues. Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister from 1958 to 1966, said that the very term apartheid had been misunderstood, and emphasized that in Afrikaans, his language, it means “good neighborliness.” [Laughs.] The powers-that-be could not compete with the anti-apartheid movement in terms of its image consciousness and media savvy. The charismatic, smiling Mandela became an icon of an entire generation in part because he was a good salesperson, better than the dour, unsmiling, unattractive politicians in power. He had star quality, even in his rough moments.

Greame Williams, Right-wing groups gather in Pretoria’s Church Square to voice their anger at the F. W. de Klerk government’s attempts to transform the country, 1990. Courtesy the artist.
© Greame Williams.

BJS: I have a final question about the exhibition itself and how it fits into your chronology and your experience as a curator. Many of us in New York remember Snap Judgments (2006) and Archive Fever (2008), both presented at the International Center of Photography. Some who have been in the city longer will remember The Short Century, presented at MoMA/PS1 back in 2002. Will you situate Rise and Fall of Apartheid in the context of these earlier projects?

OE: Well, this isn’t meant to be the third of a trilogy at ICP, but rather the second. The archive show was a kind of anomaly.

Snap Judgments was very much about the new century, and the ways in which contemporary photographers and artists were trying both to think through the idea of Africa with their images, and to counteract Western constructions of the continent and its people. Rise and Fall of Apartheid is the second show, looking at the twentieth century. The original idea was not to limit it to a case study, but to make it Africa-wide. The final piece of the trilogy was supposed to engage with the nineteenth century; it was to be titled Sun In Their Eyes: Photography and the Invention of Africa. What I was interested in, or what I am interested in, since the show—or a book, or something—is still to be made, is examining the first hundred years of photography in Africa. The project will examine different types of photographic depiction, from Walker Evans to Paul Strand in Ghana to Désiré Charnay in Madagascar to Augustus Washington, the African-American photographer who worked in Monrovia, Liberia, during the 1850s.

Let me end by saying that The Short Century was the genesis of many of these shows. I am still walking down the path I started with that exhibition. There are many things I wanted to do in that show that couldn’t happen, and I am still engaged with them intellectually.


Brian Sholis is a member of the editorial staff of Aperture Foundation. He writes frequently on photography, landscapes, and American history.