In the compelling exhibition on display at the Smart Museum, photographs tell the story of the sixties in Africa. It was a decade of change, resistance, revolution and hard-won independence in many African countries. The costs were high—death tolls were staggering and yet the human need for freedom was fervent and deep.
Taking in the nations of Ghana, Mali and South Africa, the photographs portray the struggle toward a better life—a life free from the chains of colonial rule.
The exhibition contains original images as well as their reproductions in magazines like The Drum and Zonk. The Drum aspired to be an African LIFE magazine, and ran many photo essays of conflicts by photographers shown in this exhibition. Most of the photographers had studio practices, but felt the need to document the realities of the political climate. Some modeled themselves after European documentary and street photographers, and others developed their own styles of reportage, but all portrayed the tension and intensity of the times in which they lived.
Among the African photographers whose work fills this exhibition, Ernest Cole is perhaps the strongest. His eye for storytelling, composition and form is remarkable. In his image “Police and Passes,” a Black man prepares to open his suitcase before two uniformed authorities next to a car. One needs only study this image for an entire story to emerge—a story that bears a striking resemblance to the all-too-frequent traffic-stop events in our own country. The composition and angle of the image are so brilliant that it appears as fine art. So too does Cole’s image of a group of young men grasping a grate as if caged, later reproduced as a poster with text stating “Release all South African and Namibian Political Prisoners.” European and American photographers too created work in Africa at this turbulent time. Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, Jürgen Schadeberg and Richard Wright are among those whose work is in the exhibition.
The Malian Seydou Keita captures five portraits of Africans against patterned backgrounds, bringing to mind the stunning painted portraits of Kehinde Wiley. Like Wiley’s subjects, they are proud, regal, noble. The publicity image for this exhibition, by another Malian, Malick Sibibé, titled “Nuit de Noel (Happy Club),” shows a couple dancing, and is one of the few images in the exhibition that doesn’t speak of strife. Beside it hangs the large-scale mixed media painting it inspired, entitled “When the Going is Smooth and Good,” made by Nigerian American artist Njideka Akunuyili Crosby in 2017. The painted and collaged, nearly life-sized figures have been rearranged, and more have been added, but the essence is the same—a moment of insouciance in the midst of turmoil.
A commendable history lesson, the exhibition educates, angers and once again demonstrates the abhorrent nature of colonialism. As a sentence at the beginning of the exhibition points out, “Photographs travel unwieldy paths.” What is made clear by this exhibition is that photographers do as well.
“Not All Realisms, Photography, Africa, and the Long 1960s” at The Smart Museum, 5550 South Greenwood, through June 4.