“Not all realisms: Photography, Africa, and the Long 1960s,” on view at the Smart Museum of Art, examines the mobilization of photography amid the shifting cultural and political dynamics that coincided with the African independence movements of the 1960s. The show surveys the dissemination of images over an array of print media, featuring the work of photographers Ernest Cole, James Barnor, Marc Riboud, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, and many others. The Reader connected with curator and art historian Leslie M. Wilson, now the associate director of academic engagement and research at The Art Institute of Chicago, to talk about the research that shaped the exhibition and photography’s narrativizing role in material culture.
Alexandra Drexelius: Can you discuss the title of the exhibition, “not all realisms”? The lack of capitalization suggests an ambivalence towards authority or a troubling of universal statements. What does “realism” mean to you?
Leslie M. Wilson: “Not all realisms” is a phrase taken from the last paragraph of the American photographer and photo theorist Allan Sekula’s 1986 essay “The Body and the Archive.” That essay focuses on how photographs have been used as a means to represent, to study, and surveil different types of people. At its heart is the tension between a medium that can be used all at once to make the portrait of a loved one and a mug shot, between what he frames as the “honorific” and “repressive” functions of the photograph.
While that essay largely focuses on North American and European examples, at the very end, Sekula turns his attention to the work of the South African photographer Ernest Cole, whose book House of Bondage: A South African Black Man Exposes in His Own Pictures and Words the Bitter Life of His Homeland Today, published in 1967, was a powerful indictment of South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Reflecting on the impact of Cole’s work, Sekula wrote, “Not all realisms necessarily play into the hands of the police . . . .” Writing this in the essay’s last paragraph, Sekula suggests that even though photographs can be used in repressive ways, they may still provide “testimony” about lived experiences that support meaningful challenges to unjust systems. This exhibition is interested in that potential.
As for the lack of capitalization, that actually reflects that in turning over the phrase from Sekula, “not all realisms,” I started to read it anachronistically through what we might call “hashtag logic,” as in #notallrealisms. And by that I mean a thought process that might sound something like: “I know realisms can be problematic and that I shouldn’t trust photographs and the ways that people and systems use them, but not all realisms are bad.” Or, “I know some really great realisms.” Against a lot of the distrust that people—that we—express about photographs on a daily basis, we make exceptions for the photographs we believe in or want to believe in. I wanted to hold space for the hope that the makers of photographs have for the medium’s capacity to represent aspects of lived experience. I wanted to make space for the hopes and the risks of making photographs and making claims to and about photographs. And I think we can really see that through the dynamic practices and the very high stakes of photography amidst the major political and social shifts in Africa in and around the 1960s.
The exhibition’s geographic scope includes the postcolonial context of West African nations Ghana (formerly Gold Coast) and Mali, which had both gained independence by the start of the 1960s. You also look at South Africa—reconstituting itself as a Republic in 1961, this so-called independence advanced the National Party’s discriminatory agenda and the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black South Africans. This juxtaposition offers a heterogenous view of Africa during this period—one articulated by the shifting map of independent African nations on the 1964 cover of the magazine Bingo, featured at the beginning of the exhibition. Could you talk about the role of place and what led you to focus on these nations?
I started with the Smart Museum of Art’s collection and built from there. When I began my two-year curatorial fellowship at the museum in 2019, I noted that only four photographs in the Smart Museum’s collection were made by African photographers: three photographs by the South African photographer Ernest Cole and one photograph by the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. And all four photographs were made in the 1960s. And so I thought about what I could build with that work as a starting point.
In thinking about that work, I reflected on the overlap in time frame but the radically different histories of these places. Yet, despite those differences and their geographic distance, through the circulation of images, through the circulation of publications, there were overlaps and connections and themes in conversation. I began to think that focusing on Ghana as well could further complicate and complement those explorations. From there, necessarily, the exhibition reaches beyond those three countries in following the flows of visual culture, of populations, of ideas.
In March 2020—before rushing back to the states and into pandemic-related lockdown—I was on a research trip to Johannesburg where I spent time with Ernest Cole’s papers in the Historical Papers Research Archive at Wits University. Cole’s exhaustive research in support of House of Bondage is evident in his extensive notes and his collection of booklets, magazines, newspapers, and more. Cole annotated many of these texts refuting the official accounts of the apartheid state. When the pandemic started, I wasn’t sure of the fate of the exhibition and whether I could reach out to collections beyond Chicago for loans, so I turned my attention even more emphatically to Chicago-area collections to serve as an engine for developing my thinking about the exhibition. With Cole’s papers still very much on my mind, I really dug into libraries and archives—especially the Herskovits Library at Northwestern and Regenstein Library at UChicago—as I focused on the material through which photography circulated most broadly in the 1960s before art museums and galleries in many parts of the world, including South Africa, Ghana, and Mali, began taking photography seriously as art. Books, magazines, newspapers, posters, and booklets were especially important.
Time also plays an important role in the exhibition. The long 1960s suggests an expansive temporal framework that allows for bleed. Can you discuss what the long 1960s means to you and the narratives it opened up for you?
I was living in South Africa back in 2015-2016, and during that time, a major period of student-led protests took place, motivated most directly by an announced plan to raise fees for university education—but more broadly by the colonial legacies and profound inequalities enduring in South Africa. There was a noticeable uptick of interest in the Black Consciousness Movement that emerged in South Africa in the 1960s, and I was really struck by the ways that it felt like the 60s were back—not only ideologically, but even in fashion, in style. I found myself thinking a lot about what students who hadn’t lived through that period of time and who were born after the official end of apartheid in 1994 were calling forth. And then I was thinking about how different that 60s was across southern Africa—where many countries were still mired in anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle—from what is so often thought about when the 60s are referred to in Africa, which is a shorthand for liberation and independence. Recent books like James Meyer’s The Art of Return: The Sixties and Contemporary Culture (2019) encouraged me to go even further in this direction. And then, there are my own imaginings about the 60s, a time that I didn’t personally experience but which has felt so culturally and politically alive in my life. That sense of presence has been fostered especially through the photographs and stories that my parents share, having immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in that decade, emphatically embracing their lives in Brooklyn, New York, while remaining closely connected to their West Indian community and roots. And so I’m thinking about Africa and thinking about diaspora and the lead up to and far-reaching legacies of the 60s.
I am also interested in photography’s relationship to time. The exhibition considers the material life of a photograph. Can you talk about moments in the exhibition where a photo’s meaning or impact changes through its transformation or distribution?
Yes, the ways in which photographs are reproduced and the ways in which they mutate and are subjected to other reimaginings and uses than those of their makers is crucial to the exhibition. This can be seen with some of Ernest Cole’s photographs from House of Bondage.
Cole was very committed to the book as a form for telling a powerful story about Black life under apartheid and the layout of the book and the control he could exercise over the relationship between image and text was very important to him. But as the struggle against apartheid continued into the decades that followed, many activists pulled images from the book to use in posters, pamphlets, and magazines. In the different uses of Cole’s photograph of young men behind bars, the contrast in the photograph is significantly heightened, it’s cropped, it’s given a sepia treatment, it’s adapted into a drawing. It is reimagined and remade over and over again as an icon of struggle. Reportedly, the use of Cole’s work without attribution or permission frustrated Cole, but it also speaks to the ways that a photograph can take on a life of its own. With examples of the use of Cole’s photograph in this way in the section of the exhibition titled “Again & Again,” I wanted to think about the photograph as a kind of zombie—it is alive in the present but shaped by a moment that has passed.
Unlike other media, a photograph retains its medium-specificity when reproduced in other print media—a black-and-white image remains a black-and-white image; however, “not all realisms” exhibits photographic sources transformed in the paintings and collages of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Romare Bearden, and Sam Nhlengethwa. How did you select these artists?
The works by these artists are in a close conversation with photography, using photographs as part of their material form in collage—in the work of Bearden and Nhlengethwa—and as transfers in the work of Crosby. But I’m especially excited about the ways that these artists play with time through their use of photography. Crosby adapts the subjects of Sidibé’s photographs, such as the dancers at the center of his renowned photograph Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), and paints them as larger-than-life figures. Although working in very different modes, these artists draw from the everyday in ways that help viewers see it better, to understand something more about life—life and death, memory and memorialization.
The exhibition groupings indicate diligent, curious research. Could you share a favorite moment?
I spent a lot of time going through folders in the vertical files collection at Northwestern’s Herskovits Library. And the librarians there—Esmeralda Kale, Crystal Martin, and Gene Kannenberg in particular—know so well that I came across materials that prompted me to audibly gasp, which, you know, is not ideal in a library when you’re supposed to be quiet!
One major moment for me was coming across an issue of the newsletter Dissent, which was produced by the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and South African National Students Press Association (SANSPA). That publication sought to “provide some analysis of the South African situation and encourage students to a struggle that requires courage, discipline and tenacity.” In a 1972 issue, an uncredited photograph by Ernest Cole appears in an article tracing the history of the disenfranchisement of Black South Africans—an article that importantly takes the longer view of its roots in British imperialism and the wider European colonial project and not solely the product of Afrikaner nationalism. Despite its global readership and far-reaching impact, House of Bondage was banned in South Africa, and many there did not engage robustly with the project until after apartheid’s official end in 1994. However, this issue of Dissent, published just six years after the release of Cole’s book, demonstrates that Cole’s images were, in fact, circulating in South Africa following its release, albeit without attribution. Two of Cole’s photographs appear as illustrations in the same issue of Dissent in the article “Poverty, Apartheid and Economic Growth,” featuring the divisive signage of apartheid. Although used as mere illustrations and appearing without captions or analysis, these images signal wider visibility for Cole’s images—if not his book as a whole, in South Africa during the era following the book’s publication. And it speaks to the ways that Cole’s photographs circulated through their separation from the banned book.
Another key moment was when I came across an accordion booklet made in 1955 that outlines the Volta Dam River Project. The planning for that project was underway during colonial rule, before the Gold Coast officially became Ghana, and it was a project influentially promoted by then-Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. The booklet targeted audiences with a range of literacy levels—featuring text written in English and Ewe. It brings photographs, drawings, and text together to tell a story about this major industrial project, one that would displace many people in its efforts to accelerate aluminum production, thereby diversifying the country’s market beyond cocoa as its primary export. That booklet shows the dynamic ways that the government sought to reach audiences with its message, joining with a traveling film program shown in a mobile tent among other outreach efforts.
“not all realisms: Photography, Africa, and the Long 1960s”
Through 6/4: Tue-Wed, Fri-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Thu 10 AM-8 PM, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood, smartmuseum.uchicago.edu, free
The Smart Museum wants you to ‘Take Care’
The new exhibit explores caring in all forms and the emotional toll the act can take.
Smart Museum’s take on ‘Allure of Matter’ spends time on the details
An exhibition in two parts—Part II: The Smart Museum of Art
The Time Is Now! celebrates the black artists of the south side who used their work as a vehicle for social change
The Smart Museum exhibit and companion book provide a valuable historical record of Chicago art between 1960 and 1980.