A New Exhibition Explores the Competing Visions at the Center of Africa’s Tumultuous 1960s 

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A New Exhibition Explores the Competing Visions at the Center of Africa’s Tumultuous 1960s 

For Americans, the 1960s typically conjure up romantic images of hippies, protest, and the Vietnam War. But, across Africa, the era was even more tied up with social and cultural upheavals, as resistance, independence and revolution were the order of the day. 

1960 was dubbed “the Year of Africa” by media and politicians at the time due to the fact that 17 African nations became independent that year. Throughout the decade, over a dozen more countries followed. Meanwhile, in South Africa, Black South Africans were resisting Apartheid and, beginning in 1964, Zimbabwe was mired in a bloody civil war as the Black population resisted white minority rule.

Photography was at the center of these upheavals as new nationalist governments, transnational movements, aging colonial and repressive governments, and Western onlookers jostled to capture their version of the new reality.

Photography historian and curator Leslie M. Wilson takes this intersection as the subject of a new exhibition, “not all realisms: photography, Africa, and the long 1960s,” at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. Wilson, who began the project as a curatorial fellow at Smart from 2019 to 2021, focuses on photographers working in Ghana, Mali, and South Africa, with a particular focus on Ernest Cole (South Africa), Malick Sidibé (Mali), and James Barnor (Ghana).

The show juxtaposes over 200 objects, from photographs and prints to ephemera from publications, magazines, and other printed matter, to explore the competing visions of the era. For Wilson, the exhibition is an exercise in getting people to look beyond the frame of individual photographs to better understand the world at that time.

“I used to joke that I wanted to make a wall of ephemera,” Wilson told ARTnews. “But really what I wanted was for us to look at a bunch of stuff that we don’t often look at together so that we could see the wider context.”

ARTnews sat down with Wilson, now the associate director of academic engagement and research at the Art Institute of Chicago, to talk about the wider context of Africa’s postcolonial turn and resisting the intoxicating romanticism of the 1960s.

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