Women are virtually absent from the photographic histories of apartheid South Africa. The images that traveled the world to tell of the horrors experienced by people of color in this system of institutionalized discrimination mainly showcased violent scenes captured by men and white people. Yet, for almost half a century, women photographed not only escalating conflicts, but also the everyday challenges of the people. Bringing together the photographic work of numerous women, this exhibition presents moments of happiness and abundance next to scenes of sadness and desolation, eruptions of violence besides instances of inner peace, communal activities alongside individual struggles—revealing everyday life within states of emergency.

Lesley Lawson, Night Cleaner Polishing The Boardroom Table, Johannesburg, 1984, Photograph, 6 x 8 in.

Defiant Visions shows the extremes of apartheid South Africa through the work of both Black and white women practitioners. This includes spectacular and vernacular histories captured through the lenses of seven women. Works by Mabel Cetu, Jansje Wissema, Zubeida Vallie, Lesley Lawson, Mavis Mtandeki, Deborah May and Georgina Karvellas are brought together not only to illuminate the long unnoticed image production of these women during apartheid, but also to show how they used their cameras as a means of resistance against a regime of injustice.

Many of these photographers’ black and white images portray women, exposing issues of intersectionality—moments of discrimination based on the overlapping of several social classifications, such as race, class or gender, which they encountered in their daily lives as well as in their photographic careers. The images are a testament to how not only the styles in photography but also the portrayal of South African women changed over the course of five decades. Produced for various media, they also show the changing field of photography in South Africa at large: from magazine photography to art photographs, from urgent newspaper reports to political photobooks, and, finally, to the opening of the art field to Black women practitioners towards the end of apartheid.

Photographer unidentified, Front Cover of Zonk! African People’s Pictorial, October 1956, Magazine, 10.2 x 13.8 in.

Considered South Africa’s first Black woman photojournalist, Mabel Cetu had worked as a nurse for more than 25 years before she began her photography career in 1956. She was trained at the monthly publication Zonk! African People’s Pictorial, the first mass-circulated magazine aimed at a Black readership in the country. As most images were published without credits, her photographs have only recently been rediscovered. This exhibition is likely the first presentation of her work to a wider audience. The exhibition showcases Cetu’s own appearance in a Zonk! article illustrating the beginning of her career as a photographer. Also on view are two pages with her photographic portraits of members of the Black communities around Gqeberha, formerly Port Elizabeth. These works include ambiguous portrayals of modern womanhood between Black celebrity and consumer culture.

Jansje Wissema, District Six Photographed Before the Removal, early 1970s, Photograph, 15.7 x 15.7 in.

Little is known about the male photographers who worked in the period between the magazine photography of the late 1950s and the highly politicized photography from the late 1970s. The situation is even worse for women. One of the few exceptions is Jansje Wissema. Focusing primarily on portraits of people, and especially children, from the Cape Town area, Wissema’s work was presented as the first solo exhibition of photographs in the South African National Gallery in 1975. However, Wissema is best known for her commission by the Cape Institute of Architects during the early 1970s to document the inhabitants and architecture of the residential, inner city area District Six before and after its destruction and the associated forced removals by the government. Here alone, more than 60,000 people lost their homes as part of the apartheid government’s policy of spatial segregation, which reserved the inner cities primarily for the white minority population. Defiant Visions focuses on depictions from the everyday life of women and girls in District Six that contain moments of both pause and happiness as well as of relocation and destruction, illustrating the strong link between personal and political.

Zubeida Vallie, A Black Sash Member Protests Against The Detainment Of Anti-Apartheid Activists, Cape Town, c.1980s, Photograph, 4.3 x 7.8 in.

The photographic collective and picture agency Afrapix played a crucial role in providing anti-apartheid imagery to the national and international press during the 1980s. Though the collective was often described as male-dominated, nine women photographers formed part of it: Gille de Vlieg, Ellen Elmendorp, Deseni Moodliar (later Soobben), Biddy Partridge, Wendy Schwegmann, Gisèle Wulfsohn, Anna Zieminski, Zubeida Vallie and Lesley Lawson. The works of the latter two are shown in this exhibition. Taken during the 1980s, some of the most violent years of apartheid, their images bear witness to women’s grief and resistance to the regime’s brutal oppression. Their work is presented as stand-alone prints as well as in the context of photobooks, such as The Cordoned Heart (1986) or Beyond the Barricades (1989), to show not only how powerful these images are in themselves, but also the importance of their political contextualization through texts. Vallie’s photographs capture political activists in action, the brutal repression by the apartheid government and the tragic consequences, which often involved death, injuries and destruction. In contrast, Lawson focused more on everyday situations of structural violence in the lives of Black women. Lawson’s work Nightshift (1982) consists of photographs and text that present excerpts from an audiovisual programme. It features Maureen Sithole, a nurse aide in a Johannesburg old age home, recalling her everyday struggle as a Black working woman in apartheid South Africa. Further examples of Lawson’s close collaboration with her subjects can also be found in the exhibited photobook Working Women (1985).

Mavis Mtandeki, ANC Women’s League Lunch in Kwezi, early 1990s, Photograph, 11.7 x 16.5 in.

Mavis Mtandeki was one of the earliest Black women photographers documenting Black life in South Africa. Having worked as a domestic worker in the white suburbs of Cape Town for many years, Mtandeki quit her job in 1989 to attend a one-year media course at the politically motivated Community Arts Project. She was mandated as a representative of the political organization United Women’s Congress, which later became part of the African National Congress Women’s League. During this course, she learned to photograph and produced a documentary photography series titled The Way We Live (1990) together with the photographer Primrose Talakumeni. Works from this series are presented in framed prints and a slide show. Focusing her lens on the women surrounding her, Mtandeki captured their lives as mothers, workers and activists in the political and domestic spheres. Her images of the architectures and interiors of the townships and informal settlements around Cape Town provide an important visual archive of Black life during the country’s transition to democracy, which was marked by violence. The photobook Sights of Struggle: The History of the Tambo Village Women (2023) offers further glimpses into the political transformation of South Africa and its women’s organizations, while telling the history of a radical, women-led settlement project.

Deborah May and Georgina Karvellas, You Have Struck A Rock, 1981, Film, 28 min. (still).

Edited by Deborah May and Georgina Karvellas, the short documentary You Have Struck A Rock (1981) recalls the events of the famous 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria where approximately 20,000 women protested the introduction of “pass laws” for Black women. Similar to a passport system, these laws were introduced as a means of influx control by the apartheid regime, severely limiting the mobility of Black people. A collage of interviews, archival films and photographs, filmed scenes and background songs, the documentary vividly recalls the protests and their aftermath, providing visitors with the historical context of the political events against which the photographs in the exhibition space were taken.

The title of this show is inspired by Darren Newbury’s important book Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa (2009), which traces how photographers documented the violence that dominated the country in anti-apartheid imagery, now called “struggle photography”, focusing primarily on well-known male photographers. Building on the curator’s dedicated research, this exhibition foregrounds largely ignored women practitioners to illuminate the intersections of women’s experiences in photography and everyday life during apartheid.

Through a compilation of photographic prints, slides, film, magazines and photobooks, Defiant Visions proves that women were actively involved in photography throughout the apartheid era. This exhibition illustrates how these photographers have succeeded in exposing the structural, often invisible, violence of the regime by sequencing and contextualizing their images. Bringing to light a hitherto neglected collection of images from apartheid South Africa, Defiant Visions invites visitors to critically question their own, as well as collective, historical and contemporary image memories from times of crises.

Marie Meyerding
Open Call Exhibition
© apexart 2023

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