Friday, November 19, 2010

Homecoming for Stark Record of Apartheid

by Celia W. Dugger
The New York Times
November 17, 2010

JOHANNESBURG — When he was only in his 20s Ernest Cole, a black photographer who stood barely five feet tall, created one of the most harrowing pictorial records of what it was like to be black in apartheid South Africa. He went into exile in 1966, and the next year his work was published in the United States in a book, “House of Bondage,” but his photographs were banned in his homeland where he and his work have remained little known.

The Ernest Cole Family Trust/Hasselblad Foundation Collection
“School Class” by Ernest Cole. More Photos »

The Ernest Cole Family Trust/Hasselblad Foundation Collection
“Boy in School” by Ernest Cole. More Photos »
In exile Mr. Cole’s life crumbled. For much of the late 1970s and 1980s he was homeless in New York, bereft of even his cameras. “His life had become a shadow,” a friend later said. Mr. Cole died at 49 in 1990, just a week after Nelson Mandela walked free. His sister flew back to South Africa with his ashes on her lap.

Mr. Cole is at last having another kind of homecoming. The largest retrospective of his work ever mounted is now on display at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, built in the neo-Classical style almost a century ago in an era when South Africa’s great mining fortunes were being made on the backs of black labor. It is a collection of images that still possesses the power to shock and anger.

“How could white people do this to us?” asked Lebogang Malebana, 14, as he stood before a photograph of nude gold-mine recruits who had been herded into a grimy room for examination. “How could they put naked black men on display like that?”

Mr. Cole conceived the idea of his own portrait of black life after seeing Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book “People of Moscow.” He got this particular picture by sneaking his camera into the mine in his lunch bag, under sandwiches and an apple, Struan Robertson, who shared a studio and darkroom with Mr. Cole, recounted in an essay for the book that accompanies the exhibition, “Ernest Cole: Photographer.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the museum here in a crime-ridden downtown that long ago emptied of white people, three visitors wandered through cavernous galleries lined with Mr. Cole’s work. Lebogang, an eighth grader, had drifted in from a nearby single-room apartment that he shares with his mother, who is a maid, and his younger brother. His father is in jail. “It’s very sad,” he said as he lingered over the black-and-white images.

Jimmy Phindi Tjege, 27, who like many young black South Africans has never held a job in a society still scarred by apartheid, had come to the exhibition with his girlfriend, Nomthandazo Patience Chazo, 26, who works for the government and has a car. They had driven from their black township, Daveyton, about 30 miles away.

Ms. Chazo was struck by a photograph of four hungry children scraping porridge from a single pot set on a concrete floor. Mr. Tjege singled out another picture, one of a serious boy squatting on the floor of an unfurnished schoolroom, clutching a chalkboard, with two tears of sweat running down the side of his face.

“I feel angry,” Mr. Tjege said, as he gestured to the rest of the gallery with a sweep of his hand. “This room is full of anger.”

See the The New York Times' slide collection of Cole's stirring photographs and read the full article here.

See more of Cole's photographs (below) at the Hasselblad Foundation here.

A "Whites Only" bench in Johannesburg (Ernest Cole)
Servants are not forbidden to love. Woman holding 
child said, "I love this child, though she’ll grow up
to treat me just like her mother does.
Now she is innocent." (Ernest Cole)
A picnic on the grass with everyone in their Sunday best (Ernest Cole)


Anonymous said...

i was just glancing through to see what I've missed- that second picture screamed out at me.
it was so poignant.
i wonder. i really do- if actions speak louder than words.
all that love and tender care and patience and in the end, we bottle up a woman and call her a maid- and in our minds, that somehow divorces her from reciprocation.

today has hardly started and im tired. i wish- goodness can be called what it is and appreciated for being so.


Ridwan said...

Salaam pserean:

It is a pleasure to read you here after your trip away.

Welcome back and once again thanks for your insightful words.

You are absolutely right. That picture screamed at me the loudest of all I have seen online.

I just got in from Nairobi three hours ago but I need to check when and where I can catch the exhibition.

Ernest Cole captured so much and it is important that his work is made known for the very reasons you point to.

Our humanity hangs in the balance you will agree.

Be well my friend. I am going over to your spot right now.