In Review editor Antoinette Nguyen reviews the photography exhibition ‘Steve Bloom: Beneath the Surface – South Africa in the seventies’ at The Beaney, Canterbury
Three amazingly vivid, oversized, strikingly melancholic portraits greet me upon entering this exhibit at The Beaney museum in Canterbury, England in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. They are remarkably clear, each wrinkle and crease of the faces of an old woman, crying child, and middle-aged man captured in the black-and-white photography of Steve Bloom. The clarity of this initial triptych of photos immediately felt like a stronghold, a defense, a rebellion.
Bloom photographed apartheid-era South Africa in order to capture this critical moment in history. They were taken in the mid-1970s, when South Africa was entrenched in the apartheid system of enforced racial segregation, which deprived people who were not classified as ‘white’ of their basic human rights. Most of the photos were taken in 1976, the year in which the first major cracks in the apartheid system emerged in the form of the Soweto Uprising: a series of protests in which Black school-children took to the streets to oppose a disempowering education system taught in Afrikaans, the colonial settler language. The authorities struck back violently, killing and injuring many of these children. These acts snowballed into larger realisations, changing attitudes, and shifting tides: white complacency would no longer be tolerated and Black communities would no longer remain quiet.
Bloom’s work is poignant, moving, and raw. It reveals the instability of a country facing enormous change; his work caught the mood of the time – the essence of the moment that South Africa began to experience powerful, irreversible rebellion.
The starkly white room makes the black-and-white photographs pop. As I walked through the exhibition, I was struck with striking expressions of grief, misery, illness, but also of resilience, pride, and endurance. Fifty of his prints are neatly organized about the room; each painstakingly detailed in their depiction of subject. Each photo serves as a microcosm of civil protest; the figures and their expressions are bold, despite the individuals’ disenfranchised and marginalized status.
One in particular in the leftmost corner of the room caught my eye. It is an image of two women, titled Homeless women, Cape Town. The focus is on the woman in the front, she happily sticks her tongue out, almost mocking the photographer, but not quite so malicious. Her smiling eyes are exuberant, every wrinkle and mole on display create an external masterpiece of inner strength. These women have been punished for being nonwhite – they have literally been cast into the streets, forced to live without homes and stripped of their human rights which should, as defined by the United Nations, be granted regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion. The tongue is an act of defiance, her happiness a subversion of what apartheid was invented to do – oppress and render inferior all nonwhite people. The woman behind has her eyes trained on her friend with a questioning look on her face. She questions her friend’s ability to effortfully maneuver her facial features into an expression of joy, when there is so little joy to be had. However, they sit together still, close enough to present to viewers their solidarity. Their solidarity, their small rebellion, is captured permanently here, memorialized, and blown up into prints where their faces are larger than life. Their being shown 25 years later gives life to these women’s pride and resilience.
This image was placed across from another one, which shows quite a different picture. It is two men this time; however, these two men could not be more different from one another. One is Black, the other white. One is on display, the other curiously, imperiously watching. The image is titled Khalifah performance, symbolic of the power of flesh over steel through faith. The man wears sunglasses, a symbol of modernity that prompts the viewer to think about these photos in their living present – that racial inequality is still rampant, despite the end of apartheid in 1994. The white man on the right of the photo looks upon the other man as an object, pointing his right index finger at him in a microcosmic act of colonialism. The title is significant because it speaks of resistance, ‘the power of flesh over steel through faith,’ it recognizes the ongoing protests and rampant unrest in the fight for greater equality. The contrast between seeing only the white man’s profile and the Black man’s frontal form is significant. The Black man, the man on display, reigns the photo’s subject. He faces the camera head-on, arms and body clenched, ready for action. Just as the Soweto Uprising begins, and his kin are ready to fight back against apartheid, so is he. Bloom has successfully captured the essence of civil rebellion, and the key moments right before the riot – the intake of breath before the strike.
The exhibition will run from Saturday 19th October to Sunday 19th January 2020 at The Beaney Museum in Canterbury, England. The exhibition is free, and you can find the details here.
Antoinette Nguyen is a visiting student at the University of Oxford with a concentration in Human Sciences and English Literature, also attending the University of Rochester as an incoming medical student in New York, U.S.A. She serves as Deputy Director of Education for Oxford Omnia, and is section editor of In Review. She has previously interned for SOVA, an NGO that promotes women’s health and education in Odisha, India, and for the Nhan Hoa Federal Health Center, in California, U.S.A.
Our thanks to Steve Bloom for the publication of his photography.