Alfred Kumalo (1930–2012)

Left: Nelson Mandela's mother, Nosekeni, with grandchildren holding a picture of her son, 1962. Right: Robert Kennedy outside the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, 1966. (Photos: Alfred Kumalo)

IN 2012, awash in images, it is hard to conceive of a time when a photograph of someone like Nelson Mandela could be a rarity. But in the last decades of South Africa’s apartheid, leaders like Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Robert Sobukwe were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. All images of them were banned. In this atmosphere, photographs of these men assumed a spectral, iconic status. Dog-eared and worn, stuffed into drawers and hidden among papers, the few portraits that existed of such figures circulated like contraband. Possessing these photographs could lead to trouble. And taking them certainly did. That’s why Alf Kumalo, unofficial portraitist to the Mandela family, played such a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid struggle. It was not only that he captured the human rights atrocities of the public realm, but also that he followed families home afterward, and in the quiet of a living room or the corner of a kitchen, he documented the private toll that imprisonments, forced separations, and banning orders took on families.

After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when Mandela was charged with founding Umkhonto we Sizwe and went underground, he effectively disappeared from public view. He also lost touch with family. Searching for news of her son (who was already imprisoned), Mandela’s mother, Nosekeni Fanny Mandela, traveled in 1962 up to Johannesburg, where Kumalo photographed her surrounded by her grandchildren. At the center of the image, in the vacuum created by Mandela’s absence, Nosekeni clutches her son’s photograph, while the children pass prints around. A young Zenani looks on, her father having withered into a piece of paper.

This is such an image of loss. Yet it is also Kumalo’s self-reflexive picturing of photographs and their work: a tale of their circulation in the hands of loved ones, and the story of the little squares that fought against the complete erasure of a person condemned to disappear for twenty-seven years.

Leora Maltz-Leca is assistant professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture department at Rhode Island School of Design.