The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Photography and Resistance  

Johannesburg Art Gallery

The Evidence of Things Not Seen, a reference in part to James Baldwin’s book of the same title, speaks to the intangible but pervasive nature of identity. Using works from the JAG collection exclusively by artists of colour, this exhibition looks at the influential role photography played as a visual weapon and means to document the struggle against apartheid. 

Of all art mediums, photography is perhaps the greatest weapon against exposing and calling to order injustice. A photograph has a sense of immediacy and cannot be denied.

The term resistance photography refers to photography that challenged the paradigms, policies, actions and visual narratives of the apartheid regime.

Ernest Cole
Ernest Cole (1940 - 1990) is regarded as one of South Africa's foremost photographers. He is renowned for candidly recording the evils and daily social effects of apartheid.

The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required all black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry a pass book at all times. In this image a young man is stopped for his pass as a plainclothes policeman looks on.

Fingerprinting was a necessary burden for black migrant workers who had to make a living in 'white areas'. Failing to produce a valid pass book would result in arrest and imprisonment.

Between 1939 and 1941 an estimated 273,790 people were convicted of pass law offenses in the then Transvaal province alone.

The apartheid city was a strategically segregated form of urban planning that facilitated the white economy's dependence cheap migrant labour.

This image shows a pass book raid outside Johannesburg Station - a major transport hub for blacks who had to travel to their jobs in the city and white suburbia.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the mining industry was a major employer and driver of the South African economy. Thousands of black men from the rural areas were recruited to work on the gold mines around Johannesburg.

Only employed for an 18-month period at a time, recruits lived in crowded single-sex hostels without familial visitation rights. This photo shows a group of new mine recruits are lined up in the nude for a compulsory group medical examination.

One of the cruelest manifestations of the apartheid economy's dependence on cheap labour was the 1953 Bantu Education Act. The act was designed to service the white economy with a constant supply of cheap manually skilled labour.

In the above photo Cole evocatively captures young children kneeling on floor to write - because the apartheid government was took a casual approach to furnishing schools for blacks.

Bantu Education denied black people access to the level of quality education offered freely to whites. Teacher pictured above is struggling with one of her two daily sessions of 100 students each

Cole’s series of images, that came together in the book House of Bondage (1967), capture each gritty aspect of life under the apartheid regime.

In the book, Cole writes: "Three-hundred years of white supremacy in South Africa has placed us in bondage, stripped us of our dignity, robbed us of our self-esteem and surrounded us with hate".

The apartheid government banned the book upon release, and in the following year (1968) Cole himself was banned from South Africa and went to settle in the USA.

Ranjith Kally
Ranjith Kally (1925 - 2017) was a self-taught photographer who went from working in a shoe factory to becoming a photographer for legendary South African magazine Drum and later being admitted to the Royal Photographic Society in London in 1967. Kally was a prolific photographer and left an invaluable record of the apartheid era African and Indian townships around the city of Durban. 

Kally first gained public attention when he photographed South Africa's first Nobel Peace Prize winner (1960)‚ Chief Albert Luthuli (pictured above).

This photograph of anti-apartheid activist Florence Mkhize (1932 - 1999) burning her passbook is today exhibited both as art and a record of that struggle.

Apartheid didn't only seek to control the free movement of black South Africans, but also sanctioned personal relationships. The Immorality Act of 1950 prohibited sexual relations between white people and people of other races. In this picture called Love Across the Colour Line Kally shows a couple defying the law in the face of strong penalties. Found guilty, transgressors could be sentenced to a maximum of seven years compulsory hard labour.

Kally will be remembered for his important historical portrayals of South Africa's greatest liberation struggle icons and celebrities such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Thandi Klaasen, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and pictured here Sonny Pillay and Miriam Makeba.

The human spirit triumphs even the face of severe adversity. Kally also captured the moments of joy and expression ordinary people enjoyed in their daily lives.

Sam Nhlengethwa
A renowned resistance artist, Jabulani Sam Nhlengethwa (b.1955) studied art at the famous Rorke’s Drift Art Centre, which had a significant impact on the development of South African art in the 1960s and 1970s. He works predominantly in photo collage and printmaking. 

Stop it Verwoerd is part of Nhlengethwa's Glimpses of the 50's and 60's colour photo lithography series. Verwoerd is generally regarded as the architect of grand apartheid. Under his tenure as South African Prime Minister (1958-1966), Verwoerd ordered a secret all-out offensive against all opposers of apartheid that resulted in tens of thousands of people being detained, imprisoned, exiled, assaulted, tortured and killed.

This photo collage, incorporating elements from Ernest Cole's pictures, tells the story of the tragic 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, where 69 black South Africans lost their lives at the hands of the police during a protest against apartheid pass laws.

Today the 21st of March is a South African public holiday that observes and celebrates human rights and commemorates the the victims of Sharpeville massacre.

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