Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

Photography as an instrument of protest: “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid”

Beginning in the 1950s, resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa became increasingly radical. An exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich presents photographic coverage of the anti-apartheid movement.

Resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa became increasingly radical from 1948 to 1994, as did the visual idiom of the photographers covering the movement. Indeed, their photographs actually became a potent instrument in the fight against apartheid. An exhibition at the Haus der Kunst (HdK) in Munich shows some of the photographs that became an integral part of the struggle to end apartheid.

A man is running, carrying a lifeless boy in his arms, with a girl weeping next to him. The threesome are frozen in movement, captured in a photograph that epitomizes the long reign of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The boy is dead. Hector Pieterson was shot on 16 June 1976 during the Soweto Uprising. By that time, both the resistance to apartheid and the pictorial idiom of the photographers covering the protests had become far more radical than at the inception of the state system of racial segregation. This development, from the National Party’s electoral victory in 1948 to its defeat in multiracial elections in 1994, is the subject of Aufstieg und Fall der Apartheid (The Rise and Fall of Apartheid), a show curated by HdK Director Okwui Enwezor. According to Enwezor, the focus of the exhibition is on the transition from a “racially segregated colonial area to a fiercely contested place in which the vast majority of the population fought for equality, democratic representation and civil rights”.

1950s: Protests against denial of human rights

In the 1950s the resistance still by and large took the non-violent form of peaceful demonstrations and strikes. Early photos focus on the crowds that were held together by a spirit of solidarity. Among other things, the pictures from this period show representatives of the Black Sash civil rights organization: white blonde-haired women wearing black sashes and carrying banners saying “We protest against the denial of basic human rights”.

Many of the demonstrators are portrayed bearing protest signs, as in Eli Weinberg’s photograph of a group holding signs saying “We stand by our leaders” up to the camera during the famous 1956 Treason Trial in Johannesburg. The leaders of the resistance, backed by the people of South Africa, became a popular subject of reportage photography at the time. So it is that Nelson Mandela in particular, as the key figure in the movement, takes pride of place in a great many of these pictures.

Eli Weinberg: Crowd near Drill Hall on the first day of the Treason Trial, Johannesburg, 19 December 1956 | Times Media Collection, Museum Africa, Johannesburg

The Black Fifties: Drum magazine

The use of photography as a means of protest is clearly manifest in Drum, for instance, a magazine started up in 1951 by journalists and photographers. To this day, the magazine documents day-to-day life, culture and music in South African society. Drum concentrates specifically on black urban life as well as political issues, and served as a platform for black and white photographers alike during the age of apartheid. Everyday life at the time provided ample demonstration of the harrowing effects of apartheid on the black population. The so-called Homeland system, aimed at segregating the black population, went as far as decreeing separate park benches and toilets for blacks and whites.

Struggle Photography: “You want a picture, you’ll get one!”

The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 was a turning-point that radicalized the hitherto non-violent resistance as well as the photographic coverage thereof. 69 protestors at what was for the most part a peaceful demonstration were shot dead by police in Sharpeville. The people subsequently lost faith in the notion that an understanding could be reached through talks and congresses. Meanwhile, photographers came to realize how outspoken criticism of the system could be expressed in pictures. The resulting style, in which they placed the viewer right in the thick of the action, came to be known as “Struggle Photography” and rapidly gained adherents.

Sam Nzima’s shot of dead Hector Pieterson is a prime example. It was taken during a secondary school student protest in Soweto that was brutally quelled by the police. Nzima’s photo went round the world and drove home to those abroad what was really going down in South Africa.

“Black Power”: The end of apartheid

The tenacious, mounting resistance and the increasingly organized opposition brought about the progressive demise of apartheid. That eventually led to talks with the incarcerated leaders of the movement, including Nelson Mandela. In 1990, he and the other political prisoners were finally released. The people and photographers fêted Mandela as the great liberator. Greame Williams’ photograph shows Mandela and his wife, Winnie, right after his release on 2 February 1990: both are laughing and raising a clenched fist – a gesture symbolic of “Black Power”, of the pride and emancipation of the black population. However, that day did not by any means bring an immediate end to the strife in South Africa. For the racial segregation that prevailed for over 40 years there remains deeply lodged in the hearts and minds of the nation to this day. And the photographic coverage of the country’s ongoing changes continues to this day as well.


Exhibition: “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and Bureaucracy of Everyday Life”, Haus der Kunst in Munich, 15 February–26 May 2013
Katrin Baumer
is a member of the Goethe-Institut’s online editorial staff and co-initiator of a series of readings given in Munich called “Nadaville”.

Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

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