|Bob Gosani (1934-1972): Bob Gosani as a member of the Drum
photographers was one of the principal forces that brought modernity and
modernism to South African photography and photo-journalism in the 1950s.
In realizing this revolutionary achievement, he belongs to a stellar company
with Peter Magubane, Jurgen Schadeberg, G. R. Naidoo, Alfred Kumalo,Ranjith
Kally, Gopal Naransamy, Victor Xashimba, Barney Desai. The attainments have
been such that exactly four decades later when in 1996 the art of Drum photographers
was displayed in New York City in the context of African photography in
the exhibition entitled Insight: African photographers, 1940 to the Present,
Okwui Enwezor, the brilliant Nigerian curator, art critic and cultural critic,
uttered these glowing words in estimating their achievement: “In a sense,
the long struggle against apartheid forced South Africa to bear the greatest
burden among all the ‘modern’ nations in qualifying for that designation.
Simply put, it was an outlaw country. Everything in its rancorous history
of well over three centuries pointed out the anomalousness of its status
as a ‘modern’ nation. And even when pretentiously applied, such adjectival
qualification amplified the hollow sound emanating from the utterance of
that noun. For South Africa was never a nation. Its renegade governments
worked diligently for the greater part of the twentieth century to uphold,
for its Caucasian minority populace, the facade its destiny as a nation,
a place in which only the tiniest number of people were deemed to hold rights
as citizens. . . . Brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous: these were the
qualities used by many South Africans in the townships during the 1950s
to define the substance of their lives, the peak of their coming to voice.
Difficult and unfathomable as it might seem, given the bleak prospects of
existence under apartheid’s hegemony, life was nonetheless lived with relish
in many townships, precipitating a rare period that, today, many remember
wistfully. It is almost as if the millions who later would be railroaded
and systematically destroyed by the pernicious apartheid policy anticipated
that the decades ahead would be devoted solely to the struggle to assert
and reclaim the validity of their rights as empowered human beings and citizens.
Jurgen Schadeberg, the first picture editor of Drum magazine and a highly
respected photographer, who documented many of the memorable moments of
the decade with sharp clarity and great compositional skill, notes, ‘The
1950s were exciting years. The ideas, the ideals, and the achievements of
that time should not be forgotten.’ Peter Magubane, who brought an intimate
humanism to his photographs and with equal ardor left a legacy of great
images from the period, spoke to me about how unbelievable that period was
in the now-vanished Sophiatown, then known as the Paris of Johannesburg.
He recalled its hedonism, joy, romance, and sense of place. . . . Drum’s
photographers gave visual substance and glamour to the lives that comprised
the intimate portraits of those stories. With equal scrutiny and attention
to their diverse subjects, be they celebrities, hoodlums, or politicians,
the photographers took pictures in the segregated, teeming, vibrant slums
of South Africa’s townships. Their nuanced images display an expressive
freshness and energy borne out of an irrepressible hope and optimism. The
photographers looked for their images in the most unexpected places. They
donned disguises and had themselves arrested, whatever it took to obtain
images to illustrate important stories. Schadeberg went to great lengths
for the convict-labor story, as did Bob Gosani for the prison story, Magubane
for the mine-workers story, G. R. Naidoo for the children’s hospital story,
and Lionel Oostendorp for the story of a drowned ‘Colored’ boy. Still, in
the end, Drum was less a voice of political consciousness than it was an
entertaining lifestyle magazine covering concerts, singers, nightlife, weddings,
gangstars, shebeens, beauty contests, and other social events. By casting
a critical gaze at territories that existed beyond the margins, the work
of the Drum photographers transcends the prosaic” (“A Critical Presence:
Drum Magazine in Context”, in Insight: African Photographers, 1940 to the
Present, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996). Although Bob Gosani was to
become one of the masters of the technique and poetics of Drum photographic
style, his beginnings were inauspicious as recalled by Jurgen Schadeberg
in 1990 (nearly thirty-five years after the fact) in his compilation book
Images from the black 1950s (originally published in 1991 in German in Germany,
and later in English in South Africa in 1994): “One day Henry brought his
nephew, Bob Gosani, into the office. Bob was a lanky, inarticulate seventeen-year
old who began his sentences with the words ‘the thing is. . . .’ He seemed
unsuitable for switchboard work or journalism, so Anthony sampson passed
him on to me and I took him on as a photographic apprentice. After he’d
been helping me for some time in the darkroom, I organised a camera for
him and took him with me on assignments. He soon learnt the skills of picture
taking and after a few years became one of Drum’s most outstanding photographers.
During the early 1950s there were virtually no photographers reporting or
recording events in the so-called non-white world. . . . At the end of 1953,
Drum publications started its sister magazine Africa, and later the Sunday
paper The Golden City Post. Drum branched out to produce Easy and West African
traditions. It was then that I found myself more and more occupied with
picture editing, teaching photography, and building up a photographic department
with half a dozen or so photographers and dark-room assistants. Later in
1955, we employed the street-wise and tough Peter Magubane who joined us
as a driver and messenger. He came with us on stories, assisting the photographers.
His interest in picture-taking grew and he soon transferred to the photographic
department. Ernest Cole, Alf Kumalo, Victor Xashimba, Gopal Naransamy and
mamy others later joined the department. Although none of these photographers
had any formal training, the pictures they produced for the magazine were
unusual and outstanding in their excellence” (“Taking Pictures in the 1950s”,
Pinegowrie [South Africa], 1994). Being initiated into photographic art
by a master like Jurgen Schadeberg, and in the company of such master craftsmen,
how could Bob Gosani not be brilliant!
[Reflecting today (March 13, 2001) on the essay below which was written
thirteen years ago (late 1988) in West Berlin, when our country was in
a state of social and political turbulence, it was the exhilarating discovering
the enormity of the cultural continent of our nation that had been shaped
by the historical experience of modernity that necessitated its writing.
Just before writing this review of the two books mentioned in it, I had
just completed reading C. L. R. James’s Modern Politics (1960, 1973),
composed of a series of extraordinary lectures he had given in a Public
Library in Trinidad in 1958 on the formation of European modernity from
the Renaissance to the Modernism. The historical sweep of its perspectives
is remarkable. It is clear to me today that my beginning this Website
project on South African modernity in Los Angeles in 1997 was a delayed
reaction of the effect of what I consider to be James’s most important
book. But the most immediate precipitating factor for the undertaking
of this Website study was my reading in 1995 and in 1996 all the writings
of H. I. E. Dhlomo which apperared in Ilanga lase Natal (based in Durban)
from approximately 1926 to 1954. James gave the direction and Dhlomo showed
the specificities of the topography to be traversed. The essay was published
in a West German journal of the history of photography: Fotogeschichte,
Jahrgang 10, Heft 36, 1990.]
SOUTH AFRICAN PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE LITERARY ERA OF THE SOPHIATOWN RENAISSANCE.
Photography promises an enhanced mastery of nature,
The recent publication of two anthologies consisting of photographs defining and articulating the cultural climate of the 1950s, The Fifties People of South Africa and The Finest Photos from the Old Drum, both of which have been compiled and edited bu Jurgen Schadeberg, has to constitute one of the most remarkable achievements in cultural retrieval and historical restoration ever attempted in South Africa. For this outstanding restoration process, one cannot sufficiently thank Schadeberg, though later on particular reservations will be registered. The enormity of the achievements is multiple and various: first, this duet of books re-establishes beyond doubt, and despite the diabolical efforts of the Apartheid State to erase from our cultural memory the splendidness of this decade by means of destroying the social and cultural space of Sophiatown and by means of the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, that this was a historical moment of inimitable brilliance and high efflorescence; secondly, it argues for the emergence of a national school of photography, probablt for the first time in Africa, which was contiguous with the first major black literary season of creativity; thirdly, it indicates the irreplaceable importance of Bob Gosani in our national tradition of photography, as well as the centrality of Henry Nxumalo within the literary season of the Sophiatown Renaissance; fourthly, its publication makes possible the tracing of photographic lineages from Alfred Khumalo, G. R. Naidoo, Peter Magubane, Lionel Oostendorp, Bob Gosani and others (documentary and photo-journalism photographers for the Drum magazine) to Omar Badsha, Paul Weinberg, Jimi Mathews, Lesley Lawson, Wendy Schwegmann and others (the Afrapix photographic collective of the 1980s, whose photographic work is assembled in the book of 1986: South Africa - The Cordoned Heart: Essays by Twenty South African Photographers).
One thing that this duet makes clear is that it will not do to refer to this rich sample of our photography under the rubric of the Sophiatown Renaissance for that defines a literary logic, rather than a logic immanent to photography itself. There is a defining logic in the structural form of our photography which has to be searched for and established. That logic should establish the historical unity of our photographic tradition. Perhaps that logic is to be found in The Finest Photos from the Old Drum. But the historical context of that logic is first of all defined photographically and through photographs in The Fifties People of South Africa. Among the establishing photographs of this extraordinary latter book are those of the late great Henry Nxumalo, the founder of serious investigative reporting in South Africa and the spiritual father of the Sophiatown Renaissance writers (Drum writers). Though much has still to be uncovered concerning this remarkable man, the photographs of him assembled in this book show him to have been a person possessing a profound social conscience and a man of high moral seriousness. From his face radiates a warm passion of concern about his family and about the direction the country then was embarking upon which was to lead to the disaster of Sharpeville. His Bethal report on the exploitative nature of the farm (labour) system in South Africa (embellished with photographs taken by Jurgen Schadeberg), which moved the conscience of our nation, is undoubtedly a high moment in our intellectual culture: its ethics of political and cultural commitment has rarely been surpassed. The upcoming publication by Jurgen Schadeberg of Henry "Mr, Drum" Nxumalo, an anthology of photographs on Nxumalo, will hopefully make it possible to draw a deeper assessment of this astonishing man.
The Fifties People of South Africa attempts to capture the boundary between high art and mass art: that is, it defines the structure of popular art. Contiguous to the high art of literature and photography, rubbing bodies and sharing space with them, is the mass art of popular music and boxing. Perhaps the one art form that attempted to bridge the distance separating high culture from mass culture by constituting popular culture, was jazz. The gestation and development of urban culture in our country, especially jazz, indicates the deep cultural affinities between black South African urban culture and black American urban culture. Hugh Masekela, who developed his musical brilliance in this 1950s milieu, was to confirm the deep rootedness affinities between the two cultures by being able to make a transition from one to the other without any complications. In a way, this book is a great threnody of the black urban culture of the 1950s. In fact, the book traces the cultural configurations in the formation of a black middle class in our country. This book makes clear that the formation of the black middle class in South Africa is not of recent vintage, though many have supposed it to be so. The appearance of this anthology of photographs in 1987 is apropos in a way, in that it dsplays what we could call, following Pierre Bourdieu, cultural capital, the very capital on the basis of which the United States and other Western capitalist countries are desperately attempting to forge a consolidation of a new black middle class culture in South Africa. That these countries have to a large extent succeeded is apparent to some of us in exile when we examine the pages of Tribute magazine, perhaps the most intriguing popular magazine in Africa today. It could be said with justification that if Drum magazine reflected the formation of cultural capital within a particular urban space, the Sophiatown Renaissance phenomenon represented the formation of this cultural capital, then, undoubtedly, Tribute displays its metamorphosis thirty-years later. The similarities between black American magazines like Ebony and Essence, on the one hand, and Tribute, on the other, is very arresting. This should not be taken to mean that some us in exile are not enthusiastic about the appearance of Tribute, on the contrary, we only seek to indicate a new historical conjuncture, which this magazine captures relatively well.
What is very surprising, or perhaps not so very surprising given the ideological representations articulated in the book, is the total absence in this text of photographs of the economic infrastructure which subtended the forms of cultural capital displayed photographically. In other words, there is complete absence in The Fifties People of South Africa of the photographic imagery of the black working class which was very much crucial in the cultural politics of the 1950s. This absence is not only a historical mis-representation and ideological mystification, but it also has the effect of weakening the photographic narrative of the book. What could have more fascinating would have been the juxtapositioning of the photographs capturing the formation of cultural capital and those representing the producers of economic capital (the black proletariat): the dialectical tension and contrast between the two, photographically, would have enhanced the pictorial narrative flow. Such a representation would have given a deeper cultural context of the politics the text attempts to articulate photographically. Perhaps this great absence was determined by a sentence standing by itself appended at the bottom of page 259: 'The contents of this book have been restricted in terms of the South African Emergency Regulations'. Here one must make a serious criticism of Schadeberg in that he has not dated the photographs in this book and has not designated as to who took them, though he does state vaguely in the Foreword that those taken between 1951 and 1953 were by him, thereafter for three years were by him and Bob Gosani, and from 1956 onwards were taken by Peter Magubane, Alfred Khumalo and G. R. Naidoo. Also a short biographical and a bibliographical sketch on these photographers would have been helpful for scholarly purposes.
Nevertheless, the book is commendable for its ample representation of the politics and the political figures of the 1950s. Serious political manifestations of this decade opened in 1951 with the Defiance Campaign. What could be more entrancing than the photograph showing the leaders of the African National Congress, of the Indian Congress and of the Communist Party standing together in display of political unity during the Defiance Campaign of 1952! This photograph must be one of the most important documents in our political history. It is governed by the same iconography and stylistics as that apparent in the photograph of 1951 showing the African National Congress meeting in Bloemfontein. Most probably both photographs were taken by Jurgen Schadeberg. The photograph of Lilian Ngoyi, addressing a meeting during the Defiance Campaign in 1952, has remained indelible in our cultural memory. There are many other photographs recalling the politics of the 1950s: the young Oliver Tambo fetching Chief Albert Luthuli from Germinston railway station in 1959; Patrick Duncan after his release from prison for his participation in the Defiance Campaign; the indomitable A. W. Champion, who in the 1930s was one of the leaders of the Industrial Commercial Worker's Union; the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe; Walter Sisulu, photographically captured in a reflective mood; and the young Nelson Mandela addressing a group of women pass demonstrators in 1959.
Given the prominent role of the Church in the liberation politics of the 1980s, it is gratifying to note that as far back as the 1950s the Church has been playing a singularly important role. Probably the name that signifies the historic importance of Church politics is that of Father Trevor Huddleston (who assisted in the formation of many cultural activities, and who upon his returning to England in the late 1950s was one of the founders of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London). From Huddleston to Bishop Desmond Tutu and Reverand Dr. Allan Boesak is not a great distance, though the nature of Church politics since then has undergone a profound metamorphosis. One of the most memorable photographs in the annals of our national iconography is that of Father Huddleston with two small children holding on to his frock taken by Peter Magubane. This photograph displays the extraordinary brilliance of Magubane. Its multivalent forms of symbolic represntation are prodigious.
If The Fifties People of South Africa presents to us photography as social history, the The Finest Photos from Old Drum argues for photography as an art form. Schadeberg is to be thanked for making it possible for the first time to seriously evaluate the prodigious talent of Bob Gosani by amply displaying his photography in the latter book. Gosani's ample representation in this book would seem to indicate that the decade of the 1950s, photographically speaking, was the moment of Gosani in our cultural history. What has to truly regretted though, is that Schadeberg has not given us a scholarly biographical sketch of Lionel Ostendorp, Ranjith Kally, Victor Xashimba, G. R. Naidoo and others. Despite this limitation, it is possible tentatively to postulate a few theoretical constructs on Africa's first national school of photography. The Finest Photos from Old Drum reveals that what had earlier seemed to be only Peter Magubane's idiosyncratic predilections (since they found massive representation in his work which was to hold a pre-eminent position in the public sphere), were in fact fundamental and salient characteristics or features of a South African national school of photography: the universal theme of the reciprocal relationship between motherhood and childhood; the contrast between the wisdom of old age and the petulance characteristic of young age; the oppression and suffering of women; and the extraordinary intense beauty apparent on the faces of old women. It is remarkable to note how Bob Gosani constantly or incessantly reverts to these thematic structures in his photography. With these themes Peter Magubane and Bob Gosani have founded and established a particular tradition in our national photographic culture. To sat this, is not to foreclose the presence of other pictorial traditions within our national cultural texture: the photographic oeuvre of David Goldblatt, which by any standards is very prodigious, indicates a different thematic strain. The series of photographs, published recently by Goldblatt in the American photographic magazine Aperture (late 1987), is a remarkable sequence of extraordinary power, in that they attempt topresent photographically the historical logic behind the present disintegration of the ideology or philosophy of Apartheid.
But it is the unity of themes defined by Magubane and Gosani which makes apparent the existence of a national school of photography. Jurgen Schadeberg also, although in a problematical way, now and then participates in this thematic patterning, giving it his particular inflection. Problematical, in that Schadeberg's real and central theme in his photography is youth and its supposedly intoxicating freshness, and also in that Schadeberg's numerous photographs on boxing announce the German tradition in a particular form of photography established by August Sander. Though unquestionably he is a part of our national photographic culture, Schadeberg stands at an ambivalent tangent to it. But also Gosani and Magubane give different inflections to this particular thematic unity: the former leans toward an expressionist mode and the latter towards a realistic mode. Equally between them, there are vast differences in compositional structure and iconographical configuration. Despite all this, the structuring logic of their photography is the theme of womanhood. Schadeberg, at least in the photographs in The Finest Photos from Old Drum, takes this theme of womanhood to excessive lengths, to the point of objectifying the black female body. The American photographer, Robert Mapplethorp, has recently been involved in a controversy, because of his tendency to objectify the black male body and reify the historical relations of its particular social space.
In as much as The Fifties People of South Africa poses the question of popular culture by its very minimal representation in the text, our dominant national school of photography, as exemplified in The Finest Photos from Old Drum, poses the question of the position of women within our national culture. No doubt these questions are historically interrelated.
It is interesting to note that the very 'nationalness' of our national school of photography does not preclude it being a part of an international photographic culture. Our national school's resemblance to, and affinities with, international visual culture makes obvious its anti-nationalistic militancy: the very fact that it was a cultural movement consisting of various nationalities. It is remarkable hoe Magubane's brilliant photograph of 1957, 'The Lost Children of the Golden City' recalls Louis Bunuel's great documentary film made in Mexico, Los Olvidados (1950); and it is astonishing that the formal qualities present in Magubane's 'Death in the Dark City' are very qualities characteristic of some of photographic work of Mexico's great photographer, Manuel Alvarez Bravo. These allusions make clear that there are deeper cultural affinities between African cultures and Latin American cultures, than there could ever be between African cultures and European cultures. In South Africa, this historical fact will become unavoidable when the San (so-called Bushmen) and the Khoi-khoi (so-called Hottentots) cultures are re-situated at the center of the cultural formation of a 'new' South Africa, where they incontrovertibly belong. Then, the supposedly illegible will forcefully become legible.
Deeply embedded within the covers of The Finest Photos from the Old Drum are the photographs of a major talent: who was/is Lionel Oostendorp? Unfortunately Schadeberg does not provide the necessary scholarly information. There can be little doubt that Oostendorp in the 1950s was a major force of creativity. His seven photographs in the book display a profound sense of plasticity. They each unravel a compelling narrative structure. On another occasion it will be necessary to comment more extensively on his very solid photographic skills. Suffice to say in this context that his riverting photograph of 1955, 'School's Out', conjures images of Henri-Cartier Bresson's famous photograph of the 1940s taken in Pakistan in the aftermath of the Partitioning: both exemplify Bresson's concept of the 'decisive moment'. On the other hand, a photograph like, 'Political Time-Bomb', is immersed in religious motifs and connotations. Oostendorp's work stands in fascinating contrast to the work of Magubane and Gosani. His photography argues for the presence of a multiplicity of visual traditions within our national school of photography in the 1950s. Oostendorp certainly deserves to be published in a separate and single volume consisting only of his own photographs. Other photographers like, Ranjith Kally, Alfred Khumalo, Victor Xashimba, Gopal Naransamy and Barney Desai will find their rightful place in our cultural history when the whole phenomenon of the Sophiatown Renaissance is hopefully definitively unveiled by future generations in a liberated and future democratic South Africa. Today in 1988 is still too 'early' to know the possible configurations of that unveiling.