Goodman Gallery is pleased to present Against the Grain, an exhibition of photographic works by Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Ruth Motau, Ming Smith and Lindokuhle Sobekwa. Across three generations, the exhibition explores how each photographer has used the medium to expose, question and reflect on their social and political contexts. From the 1960s to the present, the works convey an explicitly South African narrative, whilst revealing some historical parallels with the United States. From the segregation and disenfranchisement laws of Apartheid to the era emerging from the liberation struggle and US civil rights movement, the exhibition is framed by Black life under those conditions. Often working against the grain of dominant culture, the photographers demonstrate varying degrees of resistance.
House of Bondage, Ernest Cole's iconic photo essay, was the first book to visually expose the extreme injustices of the Apartheid regime. First published in 1967, the book documents the daily experience of Black citizens during a period dominated by racial inequality and trauma. It was a courageous attempt to seek help from the global community, setting a precedent over time for future South African photojournalists. Making himself invisible as a photographer, Cole concealed his identity and camera to place himself at the centre of oppressive social structures: passbook arrests, destitute hospitals and schools, spaces of servitude, mining compounds and more. In his words, "three-hundred years of white supremacy in South Africa has placed us in bondage, stripped us of our dignity, robbed us of our self-esteem and surrounded us with hate."
Concurrently, David Goldblatt was engaged in the implicit conditions of South African society - the values by which people lived - rather than the climactic outcomes of those conditions. Goldblatt says in his last interview, “I was drawn not to the events of the time but to the quiet and commonplace where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and immanent.” (The Last Interview, Steidl, 2019, Alexandra Dodd). Subtle in his approach, Goldblatt’s photographs uncovered the same pervasive and traumatic realities of South African society- by grouping rare vintage prints by Goldblatt and Cole, the exhibition opens a dialogue between their distinct approaches while offering moments where perspectives coexist.
Detroit-born, Harlem-based photographer Ming Smith started working with photography when she moved to New York in the early 1970s. Smith was the first female member to join the Kamoinge Workshop - a collective of Black photographers who came together in 1963 to discuss the presence and visibility of African American photography. Supporting the development of their practices, the collective sought to photograph Black life from a Black perspective. Smith has often described her work as 'celebrating the struggle, the survival and to find grace in it.'
Ruth Motau came to photography in the early 1990s while studying at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. Motau was the first Black female photographer employed by a newspaper at the dawn of a new democracy. The exhibition celebrates her images of women across ages, ranging from intimate scenes inside The Alexandra Women’s hostel in 1991 to a personal photograph of her mother.
A photographer's responsibility, says Lindokuhle Sobekwa, is to be true to the people they are photographing and be transparent in their interactions. He continues "I want to see my work opening conversations that result in solutions.” Personal stories sit at the heart of Sobekwa's practice – from his life experiences or other lived realities in present-day South Africa. Like Cole, Sobekwa intends to create awareness with his photographs, reflecting on local issues and public discourse across geographies. An image such as Death of George Floyd (2020), which shows Sobekwa’s family and friends absorbed by the devastating news of George Floyd's murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police, draws on a global discussion around racial injustice, at the same time echoing Black South Africans' encounters with police brutality.
Ernest Cole (b. 1940, Pretoria, South Africa - 1990, New York, USA) is known for documenting the daily experience of Black life under Apartheid. Cole left school in 1956 when he refused to participate in a lower standard of education - Bantu Education - implemented by the Apartheid government for Black learners. He completed a course in photography via correspondence and went on to work for Drum, Bantu World and the Sunday Times. House of Bondage was first published in 1967. The book and Cole were banned from South Africa. Cole would continue to live a life of isolation until his death a few days before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
There has been much speculation about what happened to Cole’s negatives and prints. Until relatively recently, it was thought all his negatives and many prints were lost. However, in 2017, 60 000 negatives were handed to the Ernest Cole Family Trust by the Hasselblad Foundation. These include not seen South African work and his documentation on the American South and black life in the USA. The Photographic Legacy Project is working with the Ernest Cole Family Trust, Magnum Photos and Wits Historical Papers to digitise and make this hidden work accessible.
MoMA curator, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, summarises Cole’s contribution to South African photography as well as to the larger history of photography in her essay in the new edition of House of Bondage : ‘Deftly harnessing image and text, Cole mines the grounds upon which Black life in South Africa during the twentieth century was surveilled, regulated, and subjected to forms of punitive existence. His lucid analysis and sophisticated visual grammar produces a blistering critique that reverberates not through the register of the spectacular, but rather through the relentless documentation of so-called unremarkable scenes’.
David Goldblatt (b. 1930, Randfontein, South Africa – 2018, Johannesburg, South Africa) chronicled the people, structures and landscapes of his country from 1948, through the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism, the apartheid regime and into the democratic era. His broadest series, which spans six decades of photography, examines how South Africans expressed their values through the marks they make in the landscape - buildings, monuments, places of worship.
Goldblatt founded the Market Photography Workshop (MPW) in 1989, a training institution in Johannesburg for aspiring photographers. MPW has seen and continues to inspire new generations of prolific South African photographers. Alumni include Ruth Motau, Zanele Muholi, Thabiso Sekgala, Jodi Bieber, Jabulani Dhlamini, Lindokuhle Sobekwa, and Sabelo Mlangeni, amongst others.
In 1998 Goldblatt was the first South African to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1998). In 2001, a retrospective of his work, David Goldblatt Fifty-One Years, began a tour of galleries and museums in Europe and the UK. He was among the few South African artists to exhibit at Documenta 11 (2002) and Documenta 12 (2007) in Kassel, Germany. He has held solo exhibitions at the New Museum in New York and Huis Marseilles in Amsterdam. His work was included in the exhibition ILLUMInations at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and featured on shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Barbican Centre in London. In the last years of his life, two significant retrospectives were opened at Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, holds the Goldblatt Archive.
Ming Smith (b. 1947, Detroit, Michigan, USA) documents everyday moments through her ethereal and transcendent vision, combining a deliberate blurriness with experimental post-production techniques including double exposed prints, collage, and painting, amplifying the works’ dream-like qualities. Specifically, Smith’s August Moon portfolio honours the playwright August Wilson by capturing the sacredness of ordinary black life within his home, the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Smith was the first Black female photographer acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the first female member of the influential Black photography collective, Kamoinge. She was one of the first African American women to break the colour barrier in modelling alongside Grace Jones and Toukie Smith. Gordon Parks wrote of Smith, stating her “wonderous imagery... gives eternal life to things that might well have been forgotten.” Her works respond to the struggles of city living, while also celebrating the community and pride produced by it. Taking her camera with her as she travelled the world, these images are a chronicle of her discerning eye.
Ming Smith had her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in February 2023. Ming Smith’s previous group exhibitions include: Museum of Modern Art’s “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography’; Brooklyn Museum of Art’s “We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85”; Smart Museum’s “Down Time: On the Art of Retreat”. Smith was featured in the travelling exhibitions: “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power'' opening at Tate Modern, and travelled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Broad, de Young Museum and Museum of Fine Arts Houston; and “Arthur Jaffa: A Series of Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions”, commencing at The Serpentine Gallery, London. Smith is currently in “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop'' which began at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Cincinnati Art Museum.
Smith is the recent recipient of the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center of Photography and the 2021 Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In November 2020, Ming Smith released her book, Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph. Smith’s work is in museum collections including the National Gallery of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Smith is a graduate of Howard University. She lives and works in New York City.
Ruth Seopedi Motau (b. 1968, Soweto, South Africa) is best known for her portraits and for her insightful documentation of South African social and political life. Ruth Motau’s 25-year career has focused on diverse activities in the communities where she has lived, in Soweto and further afield. Motau held the position of photo-editor at The Mail and Guardian from 1995 to 2002.She went on to work as photo-editor at The Sowetan from 2004 to 2008 and at City Press from 2008 to 2010.
Motau studied photography at the Market Photo Workshop from 1990 to 1993. Her work includes the following projects: Hostel Life (1991 - 1995); Religion and rituals/churches (1993 to date); Music and Culture (1993); Pensioners (1994 - 1997); Elections and Special Votes (1994 - 1998); as well as an ongoing focus on photographing black women and their bodies.
Her exhibitions include: Her first solo Ordinary People which took place in Oxford (1994); Black Looks White Myths (1995); Shifting Narratives (2002); Yithi Lana (2019); Two sides to every coin (2019); When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940 – 2000 (2022 - 2023). Biennials and international exhibitions include: Bienal de São Paulo (2002); Johannesburg Biennale (1995); Women in Photography – Beijing; and Not the Usual Suspect.
Lindokuhle Sobekwa (b. 1995, Katlehong, South Africa) is from a generation of South African photographers born after the first democratic elections of 1994. Through his participation in the Of Soul and Joy photography education programme in Thokoza in 2012, he realised that the medium of photography could be an essential tool to tell stories that concern and interest him.
Sobekwa exhibited for the first time in 2013 as part of a group show in Thokoza organised by the Rubis Mécénat foundation. His photo essay Nyaope (2014) was published in the Mail & Guardian (South Africa), in Vice magazine’s annual Photo Issue and in the daily De Standaard (Belgium). In 2015, Sobekwa was awarded a scholarship to study at the Market Photo Workshop. That same year his series Nyaope was exhibited in another group show, Free From My Happiness, organised by Rubis Mécénat for the International Photo Festival of Ghent (Belgium). The exhibition toured additional sites in Belgium and South Africa. A publication edited by Tjorven Bruyneel included a selection of works.
Sobekwa was selected by the Magnum Foundation for Photography and Social Justice (NYC) to develop the project I carry Her photo of Me. In 2018 he received the Magnum Foundation Fund to continue his long-term project Nyaope.
In 2021 Sobekwa completed a residency at A4 Foundation in Cape Town, culminating in a two-person exhibition with Mikhael Subotzky titled Tell It to the Mountains. Sobekwa opened his first museum show in 2022 at Huis Marseille (Netherlands), featuring the body of work Umkhondo. Tracing Memory as part of the summer programme The beauty of the world so heavy. His hand-made photobook, I carry Her photo with Me, was included in African Cosmologies at the FotoFest Biennial Houston (2020), curated by Mark Sealy.
Sobekwa was named an official member of Magnum Photos in 2022 and has recently been awarded the inaugural John Kobal Foundation Fellowship.