Images of Struggle and Resilience: Ernest Cole at the Grey

All photographs date from the early 1960s through 1966.

In 1990, the South African court justice Albie Sachs famously penned an essay called “Preparing Ourselves For Freedom” in which he argued for a return to beauty in the arts, and an expansion of creativity beyond the decades of revolutionary cultural work aimed at supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. While the lifelong activist knew firsthand that political engagement had long been a matter of survival, he asserted that the repeated imagery of “fists, spears, and guns” might limit the creative imagination of the new South Africa, that “the range of themes is narrowed down so much that all that is funny or curious or genuinely tragic in the world is extruded. Ambiguity and contradiction are completely shut out.”[1]   Be that as it may, there will always be those rare, inspired cases in which the political and the beautiful need not be mutually exclusive, where complexity and ambivalence are found in the most seemingly black-and-white circumstances. The work of South African photojournalist Ernest Cole (1940-1990) offers one such example. His work betrays a deep commitment to both social and aesthetic engagement, which come together in a stunning portfolio of photographs that documents life under apartheid and pays homage to the persistence of humanity through struggle.

Ernest Cole: Photographer, organized by the Hasselblad Foundation and currently on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery through December 6th, is the first museum retrospective of Ernest Cole’s work, and one that is long overdue. The artist risked his life and ultimately sacrificed his citizenship in order to produce his seminal photobook House of Bondage, which remains one of the most visually powerful and politically incisive documents of the apartheid era.

Cole considered it his life’s work to chronicle the black experience from every angle: public and private, at work and at home, and inclusive of the perspectives of men, women, children, and families. He envisioned his target audiences to be foreigners – Europeans and Americans – both in the hopes of revealing the horrors of apartheid to the outside world, and in full knowing that he would never be able to distribute his work domestically (even today, the book is less known in South Africa than it is in the West, having only been published in New York and London in 1967). Across this presentation of over one hundred images, shot throughout the 1960s, we bear witness to not only the gross indignities inflicted on black South Africans by the apartheid system, but also a collection of more intimate, everyday moments that humanize and honor Cole’s subjects.

Ernest Cole, "Township mother fights losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life of the streets. She tries to assert authority with threats: 'What's your future going to be like without an education?' But it is too late; the boy - called Papa - is out of control." - House of Bondage, 1967. Silver gelatin print, 7 7/8 x 11 3/8 in. © The Ernest Cole Family Trust. Image courtesy the Hasselblad Foundation.
Ernest Cole, “Township mother fights losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life of the streets. She tries to assert authority with threats: ‘What’s your future going to be like without an education?’ But it is too late; the boy – called Papa – is out of control.” Caption from House of Bondage, 1967. Silver gelatin print, 7 7/8 x 11 3/8 in. © The Ernest Cole Family Trust. Image courtesy the Hasselblad Foundation.

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Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History

Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1, © MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.
Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.

Ken Johnson’s controversial review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, currently on view at MoMA PS1 through March 11, has become nothing less than an art world scandal, sparking a deluge of denouncements from readers, an open-letter and petition against the New York Times backed by prominent artists, critics and art historians, and even an attempted rebuttal on the art critic’s Facebook page, with continued debate in the comments section. Some of Johnson’s most problematic assertions focus on questions of originality and “quality,” each clearly sited in the historical standards of high Modernism. “Black artists did not invent assemblage,” he protests. “In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg.” Later, the critic attacks the use of socially-engaged themes during a period in which art was supposed to be purged of realism and representation: “The art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity.”[1]

These accusations would be relevant if Johnson’s concerns were shared by the exhibition’s curator, Columbia Professor Kellie Jones, but Now Dig This! is not intended to de-throne Duchamp and Rauschenberg. Jones presents Now Dig This! as an art historical survey of the African-American cultural scene in 1960s-1980s Los Angeles; she frames the exhibition as an arrangement of episodes rather than a singular narrative. Each gallery focuses on a different theme, style, or institutional network, thus allowing the viewer multiple points of entry into a wide body of artistic and historical material. Johnson’s attachment to the master narrative of Modernism is the first (and perhaps most innocuous) interpretive error of his review, revealing the degree to which this evolutionary historical model remains deeply ingrained in our thinking. Continue reading “Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History”

2012 Varnedoe Lecture 1: “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism”

Okwui Enwezor gave his first talk of the Kirk Varnedoe Lecture Series on Tuesday, February 21, called “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism.” His series is titled “Episodes in Contemporary African Art,” which foreshadows a methodology centered not on grand narratives but on case studies that can enliven our understanding of an emerging field behind which Enwezor himself has been the driving force.

Today, we are all well aware that contemporary art has become a “global” phenomenon; from Chelsea to Venice we confront cutting-edge works by non-Western artists. William Kentridge, El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare MBE, and Ghada Amer have all held significant retrospectives in recent years, in addition to countless others featured in group exhibitions. However, the “globalization” of contemporary art didn’t happen overnight, and as art historians we still lack a comprehensive understanding of the transition from “traditional” to “contemporary” in many parts of the world, especially Africa. Hence, Enwezor’s inaugural lecture, aptly titled “Setting the Stage,” offered a timeline against which the emergence of contemporary African art can be set.

William Kentridge, Drawing from Stereoscope, 1998–99. Charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil on paper (47 1/4 x 63 inches). Image courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY.
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Ladies), 2006. Two mannequins, two guns, wax printed cotton textile, shoes, leather riding boots, plinth (93 1/2 X 63 X 48 inches). Image courtesy James Cohan Gallery.

Enwezor premised his talk around an inversion of the dictum that begins E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art—“There is no art as such, there are only artists”—proposing that when it comes to Western reception of African art, the reverse is often assumed; namely, that there are no African artists as such, only African art. African art has often been associated with ritual and collective production, in opposition to Western art history’s preoccupation with artistic genius, the “Master,” and individual oeuvres.
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