Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Photographic Lesson

When all is said and done, the three concurrent South African shows on exhibit and the attendant lectures, films and gallery walks have provided RVA with an unmatched opportunity to learn about a country, its people and its art.

Today's lecture "Image as Text: Photography in South Africa During and After Apartheid," by Dr. Babatunde Lawal at the Visual Arts Center provided an historical context for the photographs currently making up the locals exhibits.

He made the point that photographs provide not only an artistic and aesthetic record of history but also a voyeuristic one with a subjective interpretation. By focusing a camera, an element of choice is inserted into the photographic record.

He began with early Western images of Africans (the "African Other") and moved into the apartheid years where photographers, both black and white, courageously risked life, limb and government reprisal for documenting the atrocities.

Some of the photographs of the Sharpville Massacre, where 69 people were killed and 186 injured in 49 seconds, were heartbreaking to see. Pictures of dead bodies being slung into police vehicles gave witness to the official attitude of the then-government toward blacks.

After the mass displacement and resettling of blacks to the outlying arid and inhospitable areas, the regulation housing built for them presented a depressing photograph. But other shots of South African women painting their houses in an effort to brighten their new neighborhoods demonstrated a glimmer of hope.

Dr. Lawal mentioned that the South African government eventually and tellingly realized the worth of what the women were doing and encouraged it, not to help them settle in to their enforced homes, but for tourist purposes.

Like all there of the current South African exhibits it was clear from the lecture that black South Africans used two main coping skills to deal with the horrors under which they lived: faith and music. Photographs of people celebrating church services and making music are, without a doubt, the most joyful images taken during the apartheid years.

But all of the photographs need to be seen, in my opinion, if only for the reminder of the past that they provide.


  1. i actually just came across a photo of a friend of mine in SA in the mid 70s, and he looks normal and cool, and standing with him are a few black people--the servants--and just looking at it was so strange, knowing that it really was more than a picture.

  2. That is so cool because you're looking at a slice of history.
    I visited South Africa in 2004 and it taught me a lot.