It’s a surprise. A good one. You walk into San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and head first for the sculpture garden for a cup of Blue Bottle coffee and a slice of Caitlin Williams Freeman’s Mondrian or Thiebaud-inspired cake. Revived, you start making your way through the galleries.
And then you see it. South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk.
The exhibition opened on December 1 (2012) and continues through March 5 (2013). Enough time to get here to see it?
Most South Africans are familiar with David Goldblatt, but a refresher is always useful. And most people are probably not too familiar with Cole and Monk. So the following comes from the SFMoma notes:
“The son of Eastern European immigrants, documentary photographer Goldblatt came of age under apartheid and observed the increasing entrenchment of racial inequality in his country. His early project In Boksburg (1982) portrays a typical suburban white community shaped by what the artist calls ‘white dreams and white proprieties.’
“Included at Goldblatt's request, photographs by Cole and Monk expand the exhibition's field of view. Cole, a self-taught black South African documentary photographer, observed the other side of the racial divide in the 1960s, making photographs that are eloquently observant and deeply humane.
“Monk's work offers a raw and witty record of The Catacombs, a rowdy Cape Town nightclub where he worked as a bouncer in the 1960s.
“This exhibition illuminates a vital, difficult, and contested period in the recent history of South Africa from the perspectives of the three photographers.
“The three groups of pictures are complemented by a selection of Goldblatt's recent, post-apartheid photographs, sober yet hopeful records of an imperfect, still-evolving democracy.”
What Goldblatt says:
“We were insiders, all three of us: Ernest Cole, Billy Monk and me. We each photographed from the inside what we most intimately knew.”
So David Goldblatt observes in his notes accompanying the exhibition, adding:
“Cole was born in 1940 to a working-class black family in a township near Pretoria. As a boy he photographed people in the township for a shilling a time. By age 18 he had begun to work as a photojournalist. At age 26 to escape the security police and to publish his seminal book House of Bondage, he went into bitter and destructive exile. Cancer killed him in 1990. Apartheid destroyed him.
“Billy Monk’s photographs photographs are a tiny splinter of another way of being: a place in apartheid South Africa of neither black nor white but of somewhere not quite in between. His photographs are of people in the Catacombs nightclub. Here you were judged not by your conformity with the pathological rigidities of Calvinism gone mad, but by your immersion in the conviviality of brandy and Coke. We will never know what might have become of the eye of Billy Monk, for in 1982 he died at age 45 in a brawl while on his way to the first exhibition of his work.
“My series on Boksburg tells of what it meant to be white in a middle-class South African community during the years of apartheid... White and black: locked into a system of manic control and profound immorality. Simply to draw breath was to be complicit. Heroism or emigration seemed to offer the only escape.
“That’s how it was and is no longer.”
Meanwhile, SFMoma — the entire modern art museum — will close for renovations, upgrades and “transformation” on June 2, 2013. For approximately two-and-a-half years (the new-look museum is slated for completion in early 2015), it will be SFMoma “on the go” as new art experiences are presented around the Bay Area.
During that period San Francisco’s Museum of Modern art will experiment with new ideas, engage in dialogue with a range of cultural partners, and create innovative ways for audiences to experience the museum's collection, bringing the best of these ideas and initiatives back into its newly expanded home.
Beginning this summer, SFMOMA will co-organize major exhibitions at partner museums featuring works drawn either entirely or in part from SFMOMA's holdings. See more on expansion plans here.