Dialogue: Black Artists from South Africa and the United States Carry on a Half-Century Conversation

In the second decade of South African apartheid, a young black photographer named Ernest Cole took clandestine images that showed the brutality, despair, and utter senselessness of the National Party government's racial segregation laws. Cole risked everything — including his citizenship — to document the daily degradations that blacks had to endure. He was forced to flee South Africa in 1966, heading to a country that he thought would be an ideal refuge: the United States. That same year, American blacks were looking in increasing solidarity to Africa, with choreographer Alvin Ailey among those heading to Dakar, Senegal, for the First World Festival of Negro Arts. The message from both Cole and Ailey: Art is political. Art should inspire dialogue with other countries. “In the United States, we have a little problem, as you know,” Ailey told a Dakar interviewer about how the U.S. treated blacks. “They think we're not first-class citizens.”

The dialogue that began in 1966 fundamentally changed South Africa and the United States. In 2014, two decades after South Africa rid itself of apartheid, the nation is still in the throes of startling transitions, as illustrated by the new YBCA exhibit, “Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa.” The exhibit, a collaboration with SFMOMA, juxtaposes work from South Africa's apartheid years (Cole is one of the featured photographers) with recent work that illuminates its post-apartheid struggles and triumphs.

Photographer Mikhael Subotzky and artist Patrick Waterhouse get into the architecture of a space-age housing project beset by economic segregation. Photographer Zanele Muholi profiles lesbians who traverse both prejudice and acceptance from fellow South Africans. Graphic designer Garth Walker creates a magazine, ijusi, that uses colorful typefaces, cartoons, and other illustrative elements to celebrate everything from photography to pornography. Walker's contributors frequently have fun with their subjects, as in a darkly comic give-and-take between Nelson Mandela and a white supremacist, Eugène Terre'Blanche, who sarcastically rebuts Mandela's idea of a multiracial “rainbow nation” by saying, “There's no black in a rainbow.” Terre'Blanche's word-balloon comment qualifies as mockumentary — except that Terre'Blanche really did utter those words, and South Africa really is a country still divided, if not by race then other social divisions that seem glaring to an outsider.

South Africa holds particular sway over the American imagination because of our country's deep history with slavery. We were South Africa until 1865. We were practitioners of apartheid. Blacks in the American South didn't have bona fide electoral rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And the transition period of the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were orchestrating competing visions of America — and looking to Africa for inspiration — is vividly on display in “Crosscurrents: Africa and Black Diasporas in Dialogue,” a two-floor exhibit of photos, posters, artwork, and a seminal documentary that's just steps from the YBCA, at the Museum of the African Diaspora.

One MoAD photo shows Malcolm X in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where in 1964 he addressed the Organization of African Unity, arguing that the United States was “worse than South Africa because not only is America racist, she also is deceitful and hypocritical. South Africa preaches segregation and practices segregation. She, at least, practices what she preaches. America preaches integration and practices segregation.” The anger in Malcolm X's words is balanced at MoAD by the words in William Greaves' 1967 documentary on the First World Festival of Negro Arts, which Greaves — an acclaimed black filmmaker from New York — wrote and directed for the United States Information Agency, a government body that promoted American interests abroad. Essentially, Greaves was paid to put a positive spin on the three-week Dakar festival, but the film is still remarkable for its poetic narration (such as, “the Negro knows well that art has the power to convey to the world man's strong desire to be free”), once-in-a-lifetime video of Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes in West Africa, and the inspiration that it finds in paintings, sculpture, music, dance, and literature. Near the film's end, we see a conference table filled with books written by Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Lutuli, the South African leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. Lutuli's memoir, Let My People Go, is a searing vision of Lutuli's life and the life of South Africa's African National Congress.

Ernest Cole was also a published author. After leaving South Africa for the United States, Cole released an acclaimed 1967 book, House of Bondage: A South African Black Man Exposes in His Own Pictures and Words the Bitter Life of His Homeland Today. The work, which offered people outside South Africa one of the first sustained looks at apartheid, was immediately banned in Cole's homeland. Cole never returned home, and in the United States, he faced a long succession of hardships that left him living in the streets before his death on Feb. 19, 1990, just eight days after Mandela was released from prison.

Another story of tragedy that hangs over “Public Intimacy” is that of Nat Nakasa, a black writer and journalist who, like Cole, was forced to renounce his citizenship in South Africa. It happened to Nakasa in 1964 when he received a prestigious Nieman fellowship to study at Harvard University. Nakasa faced serious problems in America, including racism, and killed himself in 1965 by jumping off a New York building — a death that's recounted in the “Public Intimacy” artwork called The Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side, by Kemang Wa Lehulere. Lehulere's work is a like a giant storyboard on a giant chalkboard, and it's full of “scenes” that explain Nakasa's life and death, including Nakasa's admission just before his suicide, “I can't laugh anymore and when I can't laugh I can't write.”

Nakasa felt paralyzed in exile. Today's South African artists don't have to feel like Nakasa or Cole, who along with Muholi, Santu Mofokeng, and Subotzky, is one of the standout photographers in “Public Intimacy.” For Muholi, who calls herself a “visual activist,” exhibiting in the United States and coming here is paramount to her work. On March 12, at 7 p.m., she'll give a talk at the SFJAZZ Center, and on March 15, at 5 p.m., she'll give a keynote speech at a two-day “Visual Activism” symposium at the Brava Theater — all part of “Public Intimacy” events that are happening around San Francisco.

“Photographers don't win Nobel Prizes, but I think Ernest Cole is one of the most deserving photographers in our history. He deserved better. He suffered in exile,” Muholi says in a phone interview from South Africa. “I wish he were still alive, to speak about the challenges that he faced as he was documenting the reality at that time. Ernest Cole fought against racial tension. It's through him that we get to understand the importance of visual activism. For African people who, like me, identify as lesbians and gays and trans people, we're fighting a different kind of war, a different kind of oppression, in which many of our voices are hidden simply because of homophobia and transphobia and queerphobia that exists in Africa.”

At YBCA, the South Africans who Muholi profiles are life-size as they stare from the walls. Some look defiant. Some look angry. Some look content. It's the full range of emotions from those who are still navigating their place in South Africa, still waiting to see if their country evolves in the way that they long for.

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