Yesterday I attended the opening of The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life an exhibition at Museum Africa featuring over 800 images of South African life during Apartheid, undoubtedly the darkest period in South African history, a time we are going to take at least a century and more to truly recover from.
We have not moved on as a nation. It won't take 20 years to first undo and collectively heal from an oppression of black people that started in the late 17th Century and was at its peak between 1948 and 1994. And I have problems with people who say we should move on and forget race. South Africa's racially based complexities will take as long to break down as they took to build.
Exhibitions like this are rare and it is a bit disconcerting that it started in other countries first and is only coming here now. A French friend of mine asked me afterwards if these images were part of my childhood, were they entrenched into our education as much as French history, especially through imagery, is inculcated in their little French minds as soon as they can speak. The unfortunate answer is no. Some of these images are very familiar and others, I had never seen before. That's part of the reason why it left me so touched, because I was reschooled. But how many regular South Africans can say they engage with our history through such imagery on a regular basis? How many working class black people have been in a museum? How many privileged white people immerse themselves in history through these images and stories on a regular basis? Honestly, the one thing I left with was a sense that okay, there is some evidence to give credence to what I've heard some of my white friends say ''my parents were activists''. It's not that I never believed them, I had just never seen anything to substantiate their claims and because white people have always been shown on one side of the discourse, this left me surprised. Here I saw images displayed in a manner that forced me to confront those claims.
The exhibition features works by local and international photographers, the familiar ones like Jurgen Schadeburg, Alf Khumalo, Peter Magubane, Cedric Nunn, Santu Mofokeng, David Goldblatt. Then there are other photographs by people I had never heard of or artists I did not know were photographers. These include names like Gille de Vlieg, Margaret Bourke-White, Jane Alexander, Gideon Mendel, Absalom Mnisi, Omar Badshar and about 100 more. There are also short films, illustrations, magazine articles and videos of pivotal historical moments. It really is an education. This is not to say the countless images of the black struggle are not more intense to imbibe in this environment. They are because they are in great numbers, both famous and infamous images. Two whole floors of them.
The exhibition opens today and runs until 29 June 2014. If you live in Joburg, it's a must. If you're visiting Joburg, don't forget about it. I would encourage you to take the little ones too.
Museum Africa is at 121 Bree Street in Newtown, Johannesburg and opens on Tuesdays to Sundays from 09.00 - 17.00. The exhibition is curated by one of the most respected curators in the world and modern African thinkers, Okwui Enwezor. Thank you to the men and women who captured our history.