Thanks for the Memories

by Lynn M. Herbert

Sometimes photographs can be so powerful – and this is one of those times. Drum is a South African Magazine that was founded in 1951. Soon thereafter the magazine began to focus on the concerns of the growing black urban population. Anthony Sampson was the editor from 1951-1954 and helped organize this exhibit. In an opening statement, he explains: “The township life of the 'fifties which these photographs portray, displayed a kind of innocent optimism which was soon to be disillusioned by the events which followed…. It was the good fortune of Drum in the ‘fifties, or its writers, photographers and editors, to be able to record and reflect this vibrating world before it was overshadowed by a much harsher confrontation.” “Vibrating” is an understatement.

In this thoughtfully laid out exhibit, you began in a room that gave you an overwhelming sense of the prominent role that music played in the lives of black South Africans. Celebrity singers and successful professional musicians performing, informal groups gathered around a piano, church service – a variety of ways in which music entered into everyday life were illustrated. Each photograph was accompanied by its original caption at the time of publication to further enrich the viewer’s understanding.

Heading into the next room on that upbeat note, you were greeted by a photograph of a happy bride and groom sipping drinks through straws out of soda bottles. It was easy to share in their happiness until you read the title and caption: “Prohibition – They’re drinking anyway…. They haven’t got a license to drink, so they hide their brandy in cool drink bottles.” This photograph was followed by a portrait of gold miners taking a smoke break, the forced removal of residents of Sophiatown which was to be torn down and replaced by a white suburb, and a subsequent protest march. Sprinkled in were images of unusual events, such as a yogi burying himself for 45 minutes, and portraits of people involved with Drumsuch as “Bob Gosani, Exceptional Photographer.”

The next room focused on boxing and included Bob Gosani’s now famous image of a young Nelson Mandela shadow-sparring with Gerry Moloi, a boxing champ. Other champions were portrayed as was Benny Singh, an Indian boxing promoter dubbed “The Father of Black Boxing in South Africa.”

Portraits of political leaders at work included Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Josias Madzunya and Helen Joseph. Amidst these portraits were photographs of paddywagons driving through the streets documenting December 5, 1956, the day South Africa police picked up 156 political leaders throughout the country and charged them with high treason.

So often in this exhibit, the captions made already powerful photographs wrenching. Ranjith Kally’s photograph “Bantu Court – Zuzuland, May 1956” shows a white magistrate sitting behind a table, a black prisoner in front of him, and a crowd of black men sitting to the side on the floor. The caption reads: “the magistrate raises his eyes above the documents and plunges them like daggers into hearts of all who watch him. His blue eyes are keen; the hearts pound like the bass of a boogie woogie.”

Bob Gosani’s “watching the Dead – Newcastle, May 1958” shows a young woman and her child seated outside next to an open coffin. The caption reads: “There was urine pools and stool all over the courtyard. The walls told the murky story of degenerate backyard lives. Giant-sized cockroaches glided merrily up and down the coffin as if nothing had happened. There was nothing else, except death.”

Issues concerning women were addressed by photographs in the last rooms. The caption under Bob Gosani’s portrait of Regina Brooks, a white woman living with a Zulu, Richard Kumalo, concludes: “Regina’s attorney Mr. Harry Bloom claimed that she had ‘gone native’ and could no longer be considered white.” And Jurgen Schadeberg’s portrait of a beautiful woman posing while combing her hair is captioned thus: “Johannesburg, March 1958 – the modern Africa Miss. She’s city slick and sophisticated. She’s smart. She’s delicate and unself-conscious in the way she handles men, the home life. And because of new jobs the Modern Miss has red-painted talons onto more money than she has seen before. At first this made her gaudy and brash…. She now talks about those unheard of things: abortion, feminine rights and mere males.”

Like LIFE magazine in the United States, Drum portrayed the changing life of the 1950s to its readers including the good, the bad, the humorous, and the sad. The images that have been coming out of South Africa in recent decades have necessarily been focused on only certain aspects of life there. This exhibition was a poignant reminder of who the people we see in those pictures really are.

Lynn M. Herbert is Assistant Curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum, and guest editor of SPOT.