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Remembering History: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid at ICP

Published on
December 4

Seeking a worthwhile procrastination trip for your free hours during reading week? It’s worth your time to head down to the International Center of Photography (at 43rd and 6th, it’s just a short trip downtown on the 1 train) for their current exhibit, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and The Bureaucracy of Everyday Life.

The exhibit chronicles the history of apartheid from the origin of the concept to the system’s gradual toppling in the 1990s and is astonishing in breadth. The photographs, which are organized by decade over two floors, offer a sense of how such a nightmarish movement progressed through insidious governmental institutionalization and a slow-to-react international community.

Some of the most famous and striking images of the movement—such as the photo of a young man holding the lifeless body of a fellow student in his arms after the student was gunned down by police, as well as the photo of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison—are on display, as are enduring representations of social life under the confines of apartheid.

The exhibit benefits from this extension away from its bleak subject; in doing so, it reminds the audience that people continued to live and grow and create art in this era, in spite of the many obstacles in their path. One series—of the covers of Drum magazine over several months—stands out particularly in this arena. The magazine covers detail such seemingly trivial subjects as the day in the life of a South African pin-up girl. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the other images on display, they produce a more accurate picture than the narrow view of South African life described by photographs of blood-stained sidewalks and Black Sash members holding up their be-sloganed signs.

This is not to diminish the effects of the images of political violence. Indeed, the exhibit enhances the impact of the many photographs by the inclusion of multimedia, from propagandist videos to books from the era. It is difficult not to feel a potent sense of hate emanating from the voice of one-time South African prime minister, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, better known as the father of apartheid, as he leers at his audience and defines apartheid as justice for whites and blacks. Equally poignant are the examples of passbooks, which retain their ragged, life-worn quality even preserved under glass.

By displaying the relics of apartheid in as thorough a context as possible, the exhibit fosters a greater understanding of this historical atrocity, and is a learning opportunity not to be missed.

The International Center of Photography is open from 10-6 Tuesday-Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday, and from 10-8 on Thursday-Friday and free for students with valid student CUID through Passport to NY. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, will run through January 6.