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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