US-based, Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor opens expansive exhibit in New York, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Amber Croyle Ekong writes
When I had the opportunity to steal a moment with Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor at the private opening of his newest exhibition, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, I had one question for him. In light of the all of the work involved in producing this show, three years of sorting through over 30,000 pieces to present a collection of nearly 500 works, I was curious to know what his personal connection to South Africa is to have committed so much to the project.
Enwezor’s response was surprising and, at first, off-putting. He responded that he has no personal connection aside from living in South Africa in the 1990’s, a fact that he didn’t associate with this particular exhibition. “I am a curator and a scholar of history” he replied, “this is the third in a three part series… that is all.” At first, such a casual remark about an expansive exhibit came off as arrogant. However, I came to understand that it was more a reflection of his humility, of a simple and simultaneously intense commitment to creating a historical record through his curatorial work.
At the book launch of Thinking Contemporary Curating the following week, contemporary art historian, Terry Smith made special mention of Enwezor while elaborating on the characteristics of the best curators, noting that he is “driven by historical conscious.” And in a later conversation Awam Amkpa, Associate Professor of Drama and Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU also spoke of Enwezor with high esteem saying, “Okwui’s work is accessible – high quality, but easy to approach. This is his signature and that is why museums invest in him.”
The accuracy of these descriptions is easily evidenced in The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, which occupies both floors of exhibition space and the exterior windows at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York. ICP describes its mission “as an institution dedicated to photography that occupies a vital and central place in contemporary culture as it reflects and influences social change.”
The adherence to this goal made unavoidably clear at the entrance to the space where the visitor is greeted by two photos: one representing the election of the National Party (the Afrikaner party responsible for apartheid policies) to power on May 26, 1948 and the second of, then president, F. W. de Klerk on February 2, 1990 announcing Nelson Mandela’s impending release and the end of the ban on the African National Congress (the party under which Mandela served as president). This point of entry gives way to a much broader exhibit featuring photography, video, magazines, signage, posters, and interactive iPads presenting the apartheid era in terms of familiar epic moments along with images showing its presence and prevalence in the daily experience of South African life – all coinciding with the subtext that the apartheid period is what birthed photography in its dynamic artistic and documentary forms in the country.
Through this expansive presentation, Enwezor’s show becomes a methodical and expansive witness to this historical moment, finding its strength through interrogating the dynamics between resistance and complicity, black and white, antagonism and cooperation, and, mostly notably, the moments when the extremes of oppression become common place. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid goes beyond the familiar icons of this era (i.e. Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, Steven Biko, Miriam Makeba, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu), including their images and acknowledging their impact while letting the faces of nameless South Africans tell the stories of broader experience. Images include casual conversation over barbed wire fences in an unnamed township; Afrikaners, joyful at family parties and social outings; mourning mothers; the eruption of violence within a typical market scene; protest; and prayer.
While the show doesn’t explicitly answer the question of why it is necessary at this particular moment, the South African Ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool provided compelling context in his remarks at the exhibition’s opening. The opening date not only coincided with the African National Congress’s anniversary, but also the commemoration of 35 years since the murder of activist Stephen Biko. According to Rasool, whose own activity during this time is documented in the exhibit, Biko asked the questions: “Who are we? Are we who we are told to be, or who we want to be? And how does this abnormal system [apartheid] become part of our everyday behaviour?” Rasool praised The Rise and Fall of Apartheid for bringing Africa to the wider consciousness, acknowledging that it goes beyond the story of the “miracle and the hero” and reveals all people’s capacity when “the seeming impossible becomes possible as it is chipped away, everyday, overtime.” For Rasool, the overall message was clear, “we must battle everyday in small, ordinary ways” while recognising that the pre-condition for social-political change is first psychological change.
In his comments, Okwui Enwezor spoke in general terms that elevated the exhibition to a universal conversation about art and its impact. After thanking those who installed the show and his collaborator Rory Bester, he remarked that such an exhibit provides evidence that images can change the world. For him the apartheid era is one of “multiple theatres of history,” and a “dynamic of the 20th century” that speaks to larger themes of violence and struggle beyond documentingthe specifics of an isolated moment.
While Enwezor’s comments were brief and direct in a possible attempt to return the conversation to the work, it was clear that he was the star of the exhibition, reminding us that we are in a world where curators occupy an increasingly important role in defining how we engage with art. In the case of The Rise and Fall of Apartheid we are also challenged to consciously decide how to interact with history and to reflect upon social-political dynamics of power in a way that will not allow Enwezor’s contributions unnoticed.
• The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is currently holding at the International Center for Photography in New
–– Croyle-Ekong writes from New York