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.
You have been working on “not all realisms” for years, having started the project in 2019. What inspired you to focus on this subject?
When I started my fellowship at Smart, I looked at their collection to see what they had on arts in Africa. There were only four photographs in the collection by African artists – three by South Africa photographer Ernest Cole and one by the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. I started thinking, how am I going to build a show out of this? But, as I looked at them, I realized that all four were made in the ‘60s and they come from emphatically ‘60s projects. So that got me thinking about the era.
At the same time, I had recently been living in South Africa as I did research on my dissertation. It was 2015 and 2016, a major time for student-led protests there. I was struck, in that moment, by the resurgence of interest in the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, which emerged in the ’60s as well. And the significance of that generationally for those students, who decades later were finding ideas about Black culture and decolonial approaches to scholarship and politics. The ‘60s feel really alive at this moment.
Why did you choose to focus the exhibition on Ghana, Mali, and South Africa?
I started with Mali and South Africa, because of what was in the Smart’s collection. But then, South Africa and Mali are two of the powerhouses of photography in Africa and then I found myself gravitating towards Ghana, thinking about the political moment and Ghana as a linchpin of solidarity.
Including Ghana is also part of the provocation of the title, referencing “the long 1960s” [a scholarly idea that sees that decade’s social, political, and cultural impact as extending from the mid-‘50s to the early ‘70s]. When do we start and end the era? Is it 1957? [The year Ghana gained independence]. Or 1948, the year the National Party in South Africa began instituting the system that would become Apartheid. And when does the 1960s end? For South Africa, you could date it to the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, when protest and open dissent became impossible.
At the same time, the exhibition includes a lot of other countries because I am looking past boundaries and borders. It’s far more expansive. But the shape of the exhibition came down to what was in the Smart’s collection and what wasn’t. I needed to think more expansively. There’s a lot of this photography around, but it’s in libraries, circulating in booklets and pamphlets, not necessarily as prints. That’s just how a lot of this work was seen and disseminated at the time. I was looking for photographs in places we might not necessarily think to look.
That raises questions about the decolonial archive, so to speak – the idea of preserving those materials that weren’t traditionally preserved by states and governments and building a counter-history. Was that part of what you were trying to build here?
What’s funny is that a lot of these materials were made by the decolonial movements themselves. We could look at Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party in Ghana, and the new booklets or pamphlets that were being made by his offices. But I also was interested in materials being made by colonial governments during that period of transition. There’s one booklet in the show called Britain and the Gold Coast: The Dawn of Ghana. In it, Britain is essentially saying, “You’re welcome.” … I was struck by how, on the last page, there’s a photograph of a young mother who is being handed her newborn baby by a nurse. The caption reads, “Citizen of the new nation.” I remember looking at it and thinking, “But they’re all citizens of the new nation, right?” It’s not just this baby. But we’re seeing this scene of maternity under the umbrella of a very paternal vision. It’s the end of a certain colonial relationship, but Ghana is still part of the British Commonwealth for another three years. So, I read the pamphlet as Britain still hoping to keep its sphere of influence in some formal way.
You were just talking about state publications. When you looked at decolonized states like independent Ghana, did you find that they mimicked the publications of their predecessors?
After independence, there’s a huge transition on the ground and in leadership. But a lot of state apparatuses stay the same. The Ghana Information Services transitions from colonial to post-colonial, but a lot of the same people work there. So the materials often look similar. I think naturally we want to see the change immediately, but the reality is that it follows its own timeline. Sometimes, it is who is in the photographs or how they are made. But the change is uneven and complicated.
A big part of the show for me is looking at moments where we can “read against [the grain]”. For example, in South Africa, pro-Apartheid government entities made booklets ostensibly for white families about how to manage your Black domestic labor. In one called Domestic Servants in Urban Areas, there’s a photograph of a young woman reading a magazine in her quarters. She’s holding it open, but her eyes are looking elsewhere. On the side, there’s a radio. I love looking at this image and imagining that she’s not actually reading but listening. And listening is the site of imagination for her.
In March 2020, I was in South Africa on a research trip to go through Ernest Cole’s archives. His files really made me think about how important it is to “read against.” We tend to look at somebody and their politics and their aims and frame them within a certain trajectory. But Cole was collecting these government booklets. He’d annotate them and cross them out or change the narrative and write, “No that’s wrong.” He was studying them, getting to know them deeply and intensely to understand what he was up against.
The title of the exhibition is drawn from a quote in “The Body and the Archive,” a 1986 essay on apartheid-era South Africa by Allan Sekula, that reads, “not all realisms necessarily play into the hands of the police. Sekula, a photographer and theorist, was contrasting government publications with those of dissidents, which you do in the exhibition. But there were many utopian or revolutionary projects in Africa during this time. Do those varied ideologies manifest in the approach of different photographers?
In the show, I wanted to look beyond any one nation, but I couldn’t look at the whole continent. So I was looking for unexpected interconnections between places and people. Drum, a magazine that started in South Africa [and which aspired to be the Life magazine of Africa], ended up having a Ghanaian edition, a Nigerian edition, and an East African Edition. So, a Ghanaian photographer like James Barnor ended up spending time with Jim Bailey, the South African owner of Drum. Then Barnor goes to the U.K. where he is still making photos for Drum but featuring British models from the African diaspora. There’s a cosmopolitan, dynamic space where the photographers and publications flow and talk to one another. Drum is talking to Bingo, a Senegal-based magazine that covers Africa in a broad Pan-African framework. The more you pick at these connections, the more you find.
The ‘60s is often a shorthand for civil rights and independence movements. But, in Africa during this time, there are very different political situations. Southern Africa is mired in struggle while West and North Africa are undergoing major shifts after independence.
I was struck by this book I found in South Africa that was made for the 50th Anniversary of the Union of South Africa in 1960. In it, the book talks about race relations. There’s a quote that says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Nowhere in Africa has the Black man found his utopia.” And it points to Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana. I’ve started calling this the “Wakanda-or-bust” model. It’s this deeply unfair framework where if a country gains independence and isn’t immediately awesome, the project of liberation was a failure. Anyone who looks at, say, the United States would say, “No, we’re still very much working on the quality of our democracy. We’re working on it every single day.”
It’s the question of: how long are you allowed to spend building a brand-new state, in a country that needs to lift a large percentage of the population out of poverty?
There are real challenges that people understand. It wasn’t as if they looked at it and said, “Everything is gonna be perfect.” That’s a hubris that did not exist. But I think that a government, like the National Party in South Africa, looked at the winds of change, and was trying to say, “You don’t want any part of that.”
One thing I’d add is that, in Mali, a photographer like Malick Sidibé was preoccupied with his studio operation, but he was also going to parties. He was photographing young people. There’s another dimension to this — the personal realm of independence. On a daily basis, people are just trying to live their lives or go see friends. We often go back and look at these portraits from the ’50s and ’60s and want to read all this change through them. That’s not necessarily wrong, but you also have to think about who or what changed and at what level. For a lot of people, it’s a desire to not have your parents tell you what to do and to listen to James Brown. We need to look at this work and think about the reality that these kids in Bamako were trying to make for themselves.
I think a lot about why the ’60s have so much resonance right now. The easy answer is obviously protest and these upheavals. But the other side of it, which I think is maybe what you’re reaching at, is this internationalism or transnationalism that people were exercising before we ever had the internet. Is that a connection that you have made?
There’s so much ambition and so many different ideas about ways to connect oneself. Under the umbrella of the Cold War, there are all of the alignments or non-alignments that are forming around that time and then there is pan-Africanism and Negritude and other movements of solidarity …
There’s a contemporary romance with pan-Africanism and solidarity, as if we’re not also dealing with tensions throughout the continent. As much migration is taking place within the continent, South Africa has seen major waves of xenophobic violence over the last 20 to 25 years. It’s a country where many people went into exile elsewhere on the continent. Now, South Africa is a place where being from elsewhere, especially from neighboring countries in southern Africa, can be really challenging. I also wanted to think about the dark side of nationalism. And what are the solidarities and the support and the networks that we still need to imagine or to reimagine to be able to sustain life and to support people and to harness the goals of the utopian visions that emerge out of that moment. I don’t want us to still be infatuated with the romance of these movements or the ‘60s.