South Africa Through Lens of David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole & Billy Monk

17 Cole EveryAfrican

Ernest Cole, Every African must show his pass before being allowed to go about his business. Sometimes check broadens into search of a man’s person and belongings., 1960–1966; gelatin silver print; 8 11/16 x 12 5/8 in. (22 x 32 cm); Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden; © The Ernest Cole Family Trust

From December 1, 2012, through March 3, 2013, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk, featuring work by three photographers that illuminates a rich and diverse photographic tradition as well as a vital, difficult, and contested period in the history of South Africa. The exhibition continues the museum’s longstanding commitment to documentary photography, showcasing the greatest breadth of each artist’s work ever shown in San Francisco, and in the U.S. for Cole and Monk. Organized by Sandra S. Phillips, SFMOMA’s senior curator of photography, South Africa in Apartheid and After brings together more than 120 photographs.

“South Africa is proving to be a very fertile and active area for contemporary photography, to which David Goldblatt’s contributions and longstanding concerns have contributed significantly,” notes Phillips. “With this show we hope to show some of this rich and varied activity.”

The internationally recognized artist David Goldblatt (b. 1930) has created an immense and powerful body of work depicting his native South Africa for a half century. The exhibition will feature photographs from Goldblatt’s early project In Boksburg (1982), which portrays a suburban white community near Johannesburg shaped by what the artist calls “white dreams and white proprieties.” Losing its distinctiveness in the accelerated growth of development, Boksburg could almost be mistaken for American suburbia in Goldblatt’s pictures, made in 1979 and 1980. In them, the quaintness of small-town life in South Africa is startlingly set against the increasing entrenchment of racial inequality in the country under apartheid.

Offering multiple perspectives on South Africa during this period, the work of Ernest Cole and Billy Monk will be presented in the exhibition at Goldblatt’s suggestion. Adding an important dimension to Goldblatt’s Boksburg project is the work of Cole (1940–1990), a black South African photographer who documented the other side of the racial divide until he was forced to leave his country in 1966. The following year, his project was published in the United States as the book, House of Bondage, and immediately banned in South Africa; this major critique of apartheid has hardly been seen in his own country. In 2006, Goldblatt received the Hasselblad Award and became aware of Cole’s original, uncropped prints. Goldblatt was instrumental in helping bring Cole’s work to international prominence, assisting in organizing a retrospective tour of the work, and championing an accompanying book project, Ernest Cole Photographer (2010). Selected works from the publication will be included in the SFMOMA exhibition, featuring pictures that are eloquent, tragic, and deeply humane without a trace of sensationalism.

Billy Monk (1937–1982) was a gregarious self-taught photographer who worked as a bouncer in the rowdy Cape Town nightclub The Catacombs in the 1960s. His work, recovered and reprinted posthumously by South African photographer Jac de Villiers, exists as a raw and beautiful record of the port city’s racially mixed population.

These three groups of pictures will be complemented by a selection of Goldblatt’s post-apartheid photographs, including large color triptychs of beautiful and sober yet hopeful records of an imperfect, still evolving democracy.