Critics’ Picks

Eli Weinberg, Crowd Near the Drill Hall on the Opening Day of the Treason Trial, 1956, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable.

Eli Weinberg, Crowd Near the Drill Hall on the Opening Day of the Treason Trial, 1956, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable.

New York

“Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life”

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)
79 Essex
September 14, 2012–January 6, 2013

Some twenty years after apartheid’s unraveling, Okwui Enwezor’s latest curatorial offering proposes a reassessment of the photography of apartheid and explores its key role in the resistance movement. Highlighting the work of South African photographers, the show presents not only familiar scenes of violent oppression (though these remain among the most affecting) but also examines less acute images of the struggle, including early nonviolent street protests as well as the pervasion of race-based separation and inequality in every aspect of South African society.

With almost five hundred photographs, there is much to take in. A set of four unattributed images from late-1950s demonstrations by the Black Sash, an antiapartheid organization of matronly white women named for the black sashes worn during silent roadside protests, challenges the expected picture of resistance, while David Goldblatt’s grainy high-contrast 1984 photo essay of all-night bus rides packed with workers desperate for sleep—traveling from segregated “homelands,” where they had been forced to move, to distant cities where they could work—relays apartheid’s crushing impact on daily routines. Meanwhile, Omar Badsha’s 1980s sympathetic portraits of workers and pensioners in their own homes disrupt the assumption that nonwhite South Africans were first and foremost victims. Closing with post-1990 documentations of the violence that persists in the wake of political overhaul, the show ends having raised more questions than it answers about the writing of history, the narratives that photographs construct, and the uses to which they are put, ultimately denying the closure that would come with the reassurance of a trauma safely in the past.