Frieze Magazine

Another Landscape: David Goldblatt's Photographs and What It Means to Bear Witness

A young man stares blankly into a space somewhere beyond the camera, his presence registering a dual sense of emotional alarm and physical fatigue. His long black arms are in plaster. As the caption tells us, the image records Fifteen-year-old Lawrence Matjee after his assault and detention by the Security Police, Khotso House, de Villiers Street, Soweto, Johannesburg. 1985. His injuries are the result of a police arrest: Matjee was forcibly dragged from his home by his feet, dislocating his arms in the process. Atrocities such as these were a common occurrence in South Africa during the brutal years that preceded the fall of apartheid. However, for more than 60 years, David Goldblatt has shown little interest in documenting violent events, preferring instead to focus on the conditions that led to them. For his early portraits of South Africans, Goldblatt avoided looking through the camera lens, preferring instead to maintain eye contact with his subjects. As a result, his photographs rarely index the turmoil and carnage of South Africa’s troubled history; instead, they speak to the complexities of photography as a reflexive and analytical mode of historical representation.

As one of the key progenitors of 20th-century documentary photographic practice, Goldblatt has consistently returned to the same set of subjects. Born in 1930 in the Johannesburg gold-mining suburb of Randfontein, his childhood was shaped by a society divided by the laws and values of apartheid. In the early 1950s, as the formation of apartheid began to emerge from Nationalist rule, Goldblatt attempted to document the events surrounding the imposition of the system but soon realized that he lacked the necessary skills to negotiate situations of violence. While many photographers at the time utilized their cameras as weapons against the system, Goldblatt fixed his attention on commonplace situations in which nothing and everything seemed to happen. His analytical approach to the medium has resulted in attentive and informed observations of the landscape and the people among whom he has lived. Sixty years on from the institutionalization of apartheid in 1948, Goldblatt’s images continue to offer a profound insight into his country’s past and present.

Reflecting upon the historical relevance of Goldblatt’s career, Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou has organized a thoughtful retrospective under the scrupulous guidance of the photographer himself. While the repetitious toll of history resonates throughout the displays of old and new work, it is the 87-year-old photographer’s personal reflections, wall texts and anecdotes that are unforgettably potent. In the current age of digital photography and hypermediation, his thoughtful words assert the value of the retinal encounter as intrinsic to the role of photography – what it means to stand still and bear witness. Nowhere else is Goldblatt’s attention to detail more apparent than in his 1975 photographic series, ‘Particulars’. The images portray people in and around the townships and suburbs of Johannesburg, documenting how they behaved and composed themselves for the camera. Their differences are embodied through subtle and sumptuous details: the arrangement of limbs, the placement of hands, the folds of flesh. Intensely conscious of the particularity of human bodies, Goldblatt registers with remarkable exactitude the true character of difference against the backdrop of enforced categorization and racial segregation. 

Goldblatt’s understanding of difference was undoubtedly marked by his childhood, working for his father’s outfitting store in the 1950s. As the son of a Jewish Lithuanian and a Latvian whose families escaped persecution at the end of the 19th century, Goldblatt would come to know white Afrikaner culture only as an outsider. With a great sense of tenderness and compassion, he began rendering visible a world unacknowledged by white communities and all-too-familiar to the marginalized black majority. Randfontein was a town shaped by the social culture and financial success of the mines that surrounded it; Goldblatt was one of many white children who enjoyed the freedom of exploring the local gold mines. In his first photo­graphic series, ‘On the Mines’ (1973), he returned to the human and industrial dynamics of South Africa’s dominant industry. Capturing the sombre and melancholy beauty of the mining environment, the speed-blurred images signal the fatal dangers of shaft sinking, while the sober portraits of the officious administrators and rock-faced labourers underscore the industry’s interdependencies. Cutting to the contemporary South African mining industry, one title reads: At the Lonmin Platinum Mine, Marikana, North-West Province, 11 May 2014. Two years before this image was taken, South African police shot striking miners, killing 34 and wounding 76 within a radius of 350 metres. Returning to the scene of the crime, Goldblatt captures a rocky grey hill overlapping the distant outline of industrial architecture. Scattered among tufts of grass are white crosses representing the murdered miners.

Images such as these suggest that the structures of institutionalized violence are inseparable from South Africa’s legacies of forced removals and exploitative labour practices. In one of Goldblatt’s later photo essays, ‘The Transported of KwaNdebele’ (1989), he highlights the segregation laws that forced black populations to migrate unwillingly into ‘imaginary homelands’ remote from areas of employment. The iconic series draws attention to the state’s mindless wasting of human resources in the name of a dehumanizing system of apartheid, wherein workers had to travel for hours every day to Pretoria in order to make a living. Shot in low light at night on 35mm film, the grainy images mirror the claustrophobic nature of the bus journey itself. Goldblatt returned to KwaNdebele in 2012 to rephotograph the site. His wall text reads: ‘Apartheid has gone, its half-life will continue beyond knowing.’

Apartheid’s systems of legislation and regulation affected every aspect of daily life – including the lives of those who conceived it. This fact becomes starkly visible in the series ‘Some Afrikaners’ (1975) and ‘In Boksburg’ (1982), in which Goldblatt documents the members of white communities, many of whom remained steadfast in their conviction of racial superiority. This incisive study reveals the hypocrisy of an orderly society that perpetuated abhorrent ideologies. Here, the tension between the sharp contours of racial difference and photography’s power to mediate historical realities can’t be underestimated.

From its beginnings as a mining camp in 1886, Johannesburg has been a city defined by its segregated landscape. Yet, although the racial barriers have crumbled since the fall of apartheid, the fragmentary patterns of urban life persist. For example, The Maponya Mall, Soweto, 11 November 2009 captures a sleek vision of capitalist society that remains at odds with the realities of many black South Africans. Yet, the story of its creation is compelling: the mall was built by the entrepreneur and property developer Richard Maponya, who was born in 1921; despite apartheid laws restricting black traders, he managed to build up a substantial business. He bought the land in Soweto on leasehold in 1971, acquired it outright in 1994 and opened his opulent mall – one of the biggest in South Africa – in 2007. Under apartheid, Soweto isolated the black population from the wealthy white districts; Maponya was determined to finally see it prosper.

Over the course of his career, Goldblatt has dedicated much of his time to ‘Structures’, an ongoing series beginning with the book South Africa: The Structures of Things Then (1998), in which he examined the architectural foundations of South Africa. The work offers a fascinating meditation on the ideologies, beliefs and values upon which the lives of many South Africans remain contingent: from the geological accretions of the long era of sustained white domination between 1652 and 1990, to the precarious democratic structures upon which the country’s future hinges.

 The final image of the exhibition depicts the work of another artist: The Thinking Stone, 32 tons of granite sculpted by Willem Boshoff. University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, 14 March 2013. Boshoff’s sculpture was commissioned in 2010 by the University of the Free State to engender greater understanding of cultural differences after a group of Afrikaner students were alleged to have urinated on some black workers’ food. Shaded by a nearby tree, The Thinking Stone’s grounded presence suggests that it may have always been there. Marked with specific figures of speech spoken by diverse South African languages, the stone is a homage to the rock engravings of Driekopseiland, a major South African heritage site where thousands of prehistoric marks are disappearing. In the aftermath of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign – the student protest movement directed against a statue at the University of Cape Town commem­orating Cecil Rhodes, who founded the British colony of Rhodesia in 1895 – Goldblatt’s image finds symbolic significance. The movement fuelled the official removal of 75 works of art from the university’s walls and a series of student actions against objects that perpetuated the legacy of colonial oppression – including the public burning of 23 artworks that had previously been displayed in buildings on the campus. Goldblatt’s fundamental disagreement with the administration’s policy of censorship, which he saw as a threat to the freedom of expression, prompted his contentious decision to move his archive from the University of Cape Town to Yale University, New Haven. He has since suggested that the university either removes all artwork from its campus or holds a series of discussions pertinent to the question of historical representation. Goldblatt’s decision to withdraw his invaluable archive from South Africa sheds a light on the reality of political agency and disempowerment in the country, where the structures of the past continue to linger as an ever-present reminder of colonialism and its afterlives.

This article was originally published by Frieze.com in May, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018. 

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

In 1972, writer Amiri Baraka’s album, It’s Nation Time, sounded a revolutionary call towards a new theory of blackness, one of self-determination drawn beyond the parameters of national boundaries. Chanting, singing, and screaming his poetry over African drums and free jazz, Baraka (a founding member of the interdisciplinary Black Arts Movement, which emerged in New York) asked his listeners: ‘Can you imagine something other than what you see? Something Big, Big and Black. Purple yellow red and green (but Big, Big and Black).’ This idea of nationhood, both at odds with the conventions of the American Dream and opposed to a separatist ideal of ‘nation’, gives colour to Tate Modern’s first survey of African-American art, ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’. Focusing on black artists between 1963 and 1983, the exhibition accounts for art made at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the widespread revolutionary actions it inspired. Contemplating the show’s ambition to reflect the diversity of artistic positions taken up by these artists, it opens up a space to discuss, and even think anew, the prevailing questions around the political responsibility of art today.

Beginning with the Spiral group, 15 artists who formed in the context of the March on Washington Bridge for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the exhibition frames a broad selection of artists who took different directions in relation to aesthetics, politics and art-making in a time of extraordinary turbulence. Centring on Romare Bearden, whose initial proposal to produce collages collaboratively was rejected by other members of the Spiral Group, the first display presents a series of collages that capture the jazz-infused angst of his beloved Harlem neighbourhood. Bearden’s bold photostats, like Dove and Conjure Woman of 1964, employ a richly graphic intermix of figures and faces, interiors and exteriors, textures and surfaces – an ode to the spirit of black modernity. Cultivating an artistic language all their own, the Spiral group’s unwillingness to surrender aesthetic considerations to political protest (some attended the March on Washington and heard Dr Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech), sets the mood for a socially-charged narrative of black art. Part of what makes this work so compelling is its entanglement with the everyday lives of ordinary people. It drew on everything from the violent presence of the Klu Klux Klan (captured in Norman Lewis’s harrowing abstractions resembling KKK ceremonies) to the restorative nature of folkloric traditions (rendered brilliantly in Bearden’s photostats that channelled supernatural myth).

On the other side of America, a different generation of artists would begin to develop a radical formation of blackness, detached from strategies of representation. A year before Melvin Edwards would create his famous Lynch Fragments in 1963, Ronald Stokes, an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam, was shot by police in Los Angeles – his death drew Malcolm X to the city. It was during this period of intense civil unrest and police brutality that Edwards’s powerful welded steel sculptures, David Hammons’s mythic body prints and John Outterbridge’s constrained-yet-chaotic assemblages came into view. Resisting a chronological hang, ‘Soul of a Nation’ attempts an expansive reading of these diverse works, setting its sights on periodized clusters of like-minded artists. They are framed either by geography (West coast – East coast) or approach (legible figuration – abstract expressionism). Leaping from story-to-story and room-to-room, the show traces a porous timeline that outlines the rise of black power as an ideological frontier. Sometimes it seems the symbolic role of representational painting falls short of the constitutive political motivations of art making – an inherently social practice. ‘Black Heroes’, the only room that includes some non-black artists, leads with a series of portraits memorialising Black America’s hall of fame, boxer and activist Muhammad Ali’s gaze pierces through Warhol’s 1978 screenprint. It is worth noting how most of these artists (including the modernist Beauford Delaney and New York portraitist Alice Neel) aspired to represent the black community for different reasons, and some even sought to take on history painting by centring on ordinary black people. By this time, of course, the racial imaginary had emerged in other spheres of image-making, avant-garde filmmakers (such as Edward Owens and William Greaves who feature in the accompanying film programme) and video artists (like Ulysses Jenkins), had sought to represent ‘other’ formations of identity that interrogated questions of gender, myth-making and African-American experience.

The interdisciplinary nature of new media seems distant from any narrative of black art composed almost exclusively of objects. One room centred on ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ draws together a group of artist who used strange and desperate fragments of material, vernacular, and popular culture to creat work of social critique. A witness to the Watts Rebellion of 1965, Noah Purifoy gathered materials from the streets to craft objects that recalled traditional African sculpture, while Betye Saar’s objects fused African and native-American religious practices with the racist symbolism of popular culture. From the perspective of comparative modernities, this might have been an interesting opportunity to introduce the parallel movement of black British art (Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling was based in New York at the time), whose work also called upon similar notions of pan-Africanism and diaspora, or more relevant still, some of the new media practices, literary and musical experiments informing black radical consciousness. Many of these LA-based works were infused with a non-Western spirituality that spoke to the transcendence of black life through time and space: Saar (the subject of a single room) had meditated on questions of cosmology and astrology, inviting viewers to participate in leaving spiritual offerings at the foot of the work; Senga Nengudi performed African spirituals under a freeway, dressing concrete pillars in different pantyhose to represent male and female characters. Somehow, these speculative and ambiguous expressions of the black spirit seem to evade the narrative of ‘political’ art that clings to formal objects (the stunning abstract art of the early ’70s), or democratic art (articulated by figurative movements such as Chicago artists collective, AfriCOBRA).

Walking through ‘Soul of a Nation’ one is able to read, rather than sense, the influence of the wider cultural landscape of the Civil Rights era: John Coltrane’s free jazz in the abstract expressions of New York painters; Amiri Baraka’s poetic visions echoing in the Organization of Black American Culture’s feel-good murals; Marvin Gaye’s prophetic lyrics pulsating through Barkley L. Hendricks' achingly cool 1974 painting, What’s Going On. Despite its broad and all-together brilliant inclusion of artistic voices spanning the time, the exhibition seems to lack the musicality that once seemed to bridge aesthetics and politics. One of the most vital ideas to emerge from the exhibition chases the ongoing discussion around questions of abstraction and figuration, forms that would seem to promote opposing political projects. In rooms dedicated to ‘East Coast Abstraction’ and the subject of ‘Improvisation and Experimentation’, the exhibition elegantly revives critical histories of black non-figurative art. Though many artists refused to adopt shared positions on the subject, some critics claimed abstraction could not connect to black lives, while other arguments spoke to the incapacity of the black body to signify universal meaning.

The exhibition ends with a focus on the New York gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM), which had opened in response to the dearth of commercial representation for black artists and their relative invisibility within institutions at the time. The advanced programming of JAM’s founder Linda Goode Bryant (former Director of Education at The Studio Museum in Harlem) set the black-owned gallery down a fascinating path forged by a unique commitment to selling innovative and non-figurative art by black artists, including abstract expressionist painter Norman Lewis and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady. Redefining itself with every project, JAM resisted looking at art through a sociological lens, presenting everything from performance and concerts to presentations of politically motivated work of artist such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg alongside black artists. Pointing to the gallery as an open-ended platform, the experimentation of new forms in ‘Soul of a Nation’ brings an unexpected end to a stately exhibition of considerable breadth. While it sometimes seems as though the fear of overlooking ‘vital’ works of canonical art would weigh heavy on the impending historicization of the exhibition itself, the show successfully confronts the inevitable challenge of imposing a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity. Even if the aesthetic and political motivations do not always converge, we may still look to how black art has become inseparable from the broader moment of political inflection, but we should also look beyond what we see.

‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ is on view at Tate Modern until 22 October, 2018.

This review was originally published by Frieze.com in July, 2017 © Osei Bonsu, 2017.