Blockbuster exhibitions are a rare thing in this country. Generally the South African public don’t get to see much of what tours the United States and Europe. We are simply too far off the map. So imagine what happens when a show comes to South Africa from a lengthy tour abroad that is actually about us and our history. There’s a scuttle for position. Egos flare up and claims are made about who can say what about that dead horse that South Africa can’t seem to stop flogging: Apartheid.
‘The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ is a mega-exhibition of South African photography by local photographers, co-curated by Nigerian megastar Okwui Enwezor (who next year will curate the Venice Biennale) and South African academic Rory Bester.
After showing in three venues in New York, Munich and Milan, the exhibition has finally come home to Jo’burg, where it opens tonight (Wednesday night) at Museum Africa in Newtown. With Bester pulling out for ‘professional reasons’, Enwezor has been basking in the limelight that his status of curator numero uno affords.
Yet the gravity of this historic exhibition was flattened on Tuesday night after the press preview, when Enwezor faced off with one of the photographers on the exhibition, Omar Badsha in what was, all told, an exchange of words one would expect on a playground or an EFF rally.
“…why don’t you take ten steps and jump in a lake and drown!”
Okwui Enwezor suddenly seems a lot taller than he did an hour ago.
“I’m not leaving! I want a beer”.
An Amstel, freshly poured, the glass covered in perspiration, is snatched from my hand which hangs terrified in the air, passively offering up this tasty beverage.
“You’re no better than the whites who exploited us.”
Omar Badsha suddenly seems a lot shorter than he did an hour ago.
My jaw drops lower, and lower; I can’t help staring. I wan’t to take a picture but I’m too stunned to fumble for my cellphone. Anyway, a picture couldn’t do justice to what I’m witnessing. The raised voices continue across the crowded room:
“Fuck you, you piece of shit” …half the beer goes down Enwezor’s throat in a single gulp. “You’re sick” he continues as his handlers try to talk him down.
The facade has dropped, the tension is exposed. It’s the post-press preview drinks session at the Turbine Hall, and the mood is akin to the smell that hangs in the air when dogs have been fighting. I look around at the others in the room to see if I’m not hallucinating. Most of the journalists have gone and only the cogs in the machine remain.
‘The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ has been on the road since 2012. It’s a blockbuster exhibition that features over 800 photographs that attempt to visually narrate the traumatic history of apartheid in South Africa.
People get touchy when it comes to history; South Africans especially. We like to think we’re special, that our history is different. That’s true, it is. No history is the same as another. More importantly, there can be no singular history but rather a multiplicity of divergent histories that scale up to a collective social experience.
Nevertheless, people get touchy. One of the issues is around ownership with the question who has the right to tell a history, to narrate our story being commonly asked. Overarching narratives thus become problematic when these different experiences of the past converge and meet in an exhibition.
It’s been a question on my mind. Why did an exhibition of photographs about apartheid by South African photographers start in the U.S and stop twice in Europe before coming to South African shores? Money, I’m told. Resources. Costs. Funders. Travel and Sustenance. Big names. Curatorial fees.
Strangely enough the S.A co-curator pulled out for the Jo’burg leg. The ICP, as the host institution, issued a press release citing “professional reasons” for Rory Bester’s non-participation in the exhibitions local run. Declining to comment in any forum, Bester’s absence seemed somewhat ominous as Enwezor graciously thanked him during the formalities of the press preview and walkabout.
As the post-preview drinks wound to a close the night before the exhibition debuts to South African audiences all seemed well in the state of Gauteng. But the back slapping and self congratulation was short-lived.
“You’re not black, you’re just like them, like the whites in the 70’s and 80’s who exploited us!” shoots Omar Badsha whose work features on the show.
The atmosphere digresses and the playground antics resume.
“You’re not black either” fires back Enwezor.
People are starting to get embarrassed. Enwezor, whose strides are significantly pronounced, has to be restrained at one point. Badsha starts looking like the scrawny kid who wont stop. The swearing intensifies. Some of the veterans photographers laugh awkwardly to themselves.
Today on the phone Badsha showed no remorse. “I’m not afraid to stand up to him!”
“There’s no space for us, no space for dialogue” further venting “he must respect our right as photographers to participate in the discourse of photography” with the final adage “our voice has been written out of history
And therein lies the rub. An exhibition of photographs, by its very nature, presents a story and tells a tale out of a collection of moments. Badsha, it seems, doesn’t want to let go of those moments, with the desire for the voice of the photographers to qualify the images.
It’s often said that we need to look to the past, to our history to understand our future. However, the final word, it seems, comes to occupy the way that we negotiate the present: fussing and fighting. DM