Exhibition throws new light on chronicler of apartheid

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The Independent Online

A full-bleed image of a line of naked black men, their hands raised to the ceiling of a grimy room, seems as though it must be a record life in a prison. In some senses it was.

The photographer who took it intended the picture to explain part of the “extraordinary experience to live life as though it were a punishment for being black."

Ernest Cole's "Mine Recruition" forms one of the most powerful parts of an disturbing and stark record of life under Apartheid. The men it shows were stripped and examined like cattle as part of their induction into the gold mines of Johannesburg.

The picture was taken by the largely unheralded black photographer who had smuggled the camera into the room hidden in his lunchbag. A gifted chronicler of degradations of life under the system of racial segregation, Mr Cole's work is little known in his home country.

While fellow South Africans such as David Goldblatt, Peter Magubane and Omar Badsha have achieved widespread recognition, Mr Cole has remained comparatively obscure. The largest retrospective ever staged of his work is underway in Johannesburg this month in an effort to remedy this.

The exhibition largely leans on “The House of Bondage” a series of harrowing photo essays on Apartheid at its peak published by Mr Cole after he went into exile in the US in 1960. It was the only book he ever published and it was banned by the Apartheid government. Its bleak, unsentimental style retains the power to shock more than a decade and a half after the collapse of the system it had as its subject.

He was not fated to witness the euphoric transformation of his homeland during the 1990s and died destitute and a world away in New York, a week after Nelson's Mandela's release. His sister flew home soon after carrying his ashes on her lap.

Standing at just over five feet tall and working as an apprentice to a Chinese photographer, the young artist was able to get work at the groundbreaking African magazine Drum. He was also able to play the Apartheid system by its own arbitrary and absurd rules and successfully applied to have himself reclassified as coloured. The first black freelance journalist was one of thousands of people who achieved this leap - which made or broke lives - despite his dark skin, thanks to his command of Afrikaans, the typical language of coloured South Africans.

The subterfuge released him into the world outside the Bantu enclaves and enabled him to travel abroad. In an age before digital communication, where negatives needed to be delivered to picture agencies in order to be disseminated, this was vital.

Visitors to Johannesburg's powerful Apartheid Museum will be familiar with his work, if not his name as "Mine Recruition" and several other series form the visual mainstay of the exhibit. Among them is "Child and Nanny", where a smiling white toddler kisses his black carer. In the caption the maid is quoted saying: “I love this child, though she’ll grow up to treat me just like her mother does.”

The retrospective might not have been possible without the intervention of chance and the recovery of some of his original work in Europe.

A hoard of Mr Cole's negatives, long rumoured to have found their way to Sweden, resurfaced recently after the intervention of compatriot and fellow photographer David Goldblatt. He had travelled to the country to receive an award and took the opportunity to ask if reports of the lost works were true. They were.

It means that the exhibition running until 21 November at the Johannesburg Art Gallery reveal many full frames which had been cropped for polemical effect in "The House of Bondage”.

Speaking from his home in Johannesburg yesterday, Mr Goldblatt said these images reveal the extent of Mr Cole's talent: “He was brilliant.

“Not only in his ingenuity and his bravery as a man. He was also a very fine photographer.”

The 80-year-old award-winner argues that the perception of “The House of Bondage” as a polemic against Apartheid and the fact of its banning were responsible for the artist's lack of fame in his home country.

Mr Cole's hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work “People of Moscow” inspired the young man to his own thematic essays, would have been proud of what was produced, Mr Goldblatt argued.

“There's no question his work was as good as the best that was being done in Europe or anywhere else at the time. And all of that by a young man who had never left the country.”