The International Center of Photography currently displays a noteworthy collection of apartheid images. The two-floor exhibit contains a multitude of photographs taken from the early 20th century to the modern day, all showing the evolution of culture and politics in South Africa. Stepping into the museum, I came equipped with some knowledge of this man-made abomination and its history. Actually seeing the haunting images, however, opened my eyes to something that was more than a passage in a history book. Only then did it become less of a story and more of a reality.
The exhibit contained numerous photographs that revealed the steaming tension between the native South Africans and the authorities. The battle between blacks and whites found its root in opposing goals, with the first group vehemently fighting for equality and the latter determined to keep the nation segregated. The issue of it all was just that; how could South Africa be a nation if the majority of its citizens were an inferior class? A photograph taken by Sam Nzima in 1976 embodied that idea. Hector Peiterson, a young man, was being loaded into a car. His clothes were tattered, his left foot was without a shoe, and his thin and lifeless limbs were dangling in the hands of a man. The man who carried him was evidently horrified. With mouth wide agape, he seemed to be releasing a cry of desperation. There was no question that he witnesses something catastrophic. He, however, wasn’t the only one to lament over the dead boy. Numerous people behind him reflected his expression. They were hopeless and confused, but ready to fight.
Not all images shared this theme of violence and consequence. The blacks in South Africa witnessed massive cases of injustice and cruelty, but they were steadfast to believe in the possibility of change. There were large groups of peaceful and well-organized protestors amongst the rebels, as Jurgen Schadeberg’s powerful image implies. Taken in 1931, this photograph captured Violet Hashe, a female activist, speaking to a crowd of well-dressed South African citizens. Her hands were outstretched as she addressed her fellow activist. Her passionate body language seemed to echo the liveliness of the South African flag that was waved behind her. The caption provided a few brief comments about the picture, including the name of the main activist and the campaign’s name. There was no insight into what came before this event or if the protestors took a stride towards equality. Those details, however, would be superfluous, as the photograph excelled at capturing the invigorated spirit of the people. Hope was well alive on their faces.
What struck me most about the exhibit was its varied focus. The collection of photographs did not seek to label the 1900s of South Africa as a decade of apartheid, but instead aimed to capture all the aspects of life in that era. The overall message of the exhibit was clear: life is not solely light or dark. Much of the century was filled with distress and unease, but there were certainly beacons of light that guided the oppressed citizens through the tough times.
Drum magazine, a South African publication, aimed to celebrate the native South African culture and “The Black Fifties” despite the political chaos. Labeled as “Africa’s leading magazine”, the colorful magazine cover stared back at me as I looked at it through a glass case. On the cover was the image of a young lady in an elegant blue dress. Her legs crossed in a flirtatious manner as she leaned against pink stairs. Her curly bangs adorned the side of her face and her eyes gave off a sultry expression, as she looked right through the cover. Her aura of confidence and beauty paralleled that of the rising stars during New York’s Harlem Renaissance. Drum magazine was an outlet for black photographers to showcase their work and earn recognition, especially in the field of documenting.
An exhibit worth attending, Rise and Fall of Apartheid was both bone chilling and heartwarming. Uncensored and unaltered, the photographs captured the worst and best times of the dynamic century of apartheid.