Curator’s essay: Siona O’Connell

For the first time, the photographs of anti-apartheid photographers Benny Gool, Zubeida Vallie and Adil Bradlow are brought together in a group exhibition. From the early 1980s, these young photographers and friends were to be found with their cameras documenting apartheid South Africa, dodging security police, taking part in protests and being detained on several occasions. Their impressive collections show us now, some nineteen years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, a vivid narrative of violence, loss and injuries, the reverberations of which are subdued in the rhetoric of the post-apartheid landscape.

In curating this exhibition, the photographers and I poured through thousands of negatives, selecting those that that would fit the curatorial brief, restricting our selection to images taken during the 1980s and ending with the memorable one of Winnie Mandela at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As I sifted through thousands of negatives and slides, these tangible expressions of particular moments, I was forced to consider the after-lives of oppression. I sat, hunched over the light box, looking intently at 35 mm negatives, apparently in the safety of my emancipation. At one moment I thought that perhaps these were the same images of the same events. I remember clearly when I realised that, contrary to my assumption, these images depicted thousands of different moments and hundreds of thousands of different faces. Behind the seemingly similar protest posters, each of these negatives illustrated the scope and breadth of the collective struggle against apartheid by ordinary and often
unidentifiable men, women and children.

I found myself in a strange space, neither here nor there, neither then nor now. I recognised spaces, places and people, and I caught my breath as I recognised particular faces now gracing the front pages of South African newspapers for all kinds of reasons. Considering these images, I found it impossible to ignore the almost palpable and very different trajectory of the lives of their fellow protesters, who have seemingly been obliterated from our struggle history and have apparently disappeared into the grains of these photographs. What these images do is argue for the telling of another history of apartheid, one that is implicated in the present.

The images by Gool, Bradlow and Vallie document in detail the ultimate sacrifices, the to-and-froing of power, the fine lines that join and divide. Looking at these images now, some thirty years after first exposure, I ask: “Just how did we get to this point? And how on earth do we get beyond it?”. I realise that I know the answer to my question. Through the black, white and grey grains, I understand what Anthony Bogues means when he talks about historical catastrophe, that there is no going back, there is no do-over, and the consequences of oppression are catastrophic in their reverberations.

These images, many of them from 35 mm film negatives, hint of a time that has not yet passed. What they do now is simple: they offer the viewer the opportunity to think about key questions in South Africa, including those of archives, history, freedom and repair. They remind us now of a narrative of violence and of loss, the human cost demanded by apartheid, and urge us to think about the crucial question: HOW MAY WE YET BE FREE?