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Posted on 22nd November, 2011

Review of Ian Berry's 'Living Apart' photography exhibition,

at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool (Nov 2011).


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This is an exhibition of, appropriately perhaps, black & white images of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and its following years. I came to the exhibition thinking that images of inhumanity by one group towards others can help prevent similar problems happening again. But, things are never that simple, are they?


With an exhibition as serious as this, it may be puerile to consider a photographic, rather than a social angle. However, I must mention two images that stand out for me in this respect, before dealing with the more sombre side. Firstly, the gent pushing his trolley of mannequins along a street, and secondly, an image catching the glance of a Malay woman at a wedding celebration. Perfect examples of street photography and 'decisive moment' respectively, and significantly perhaps, displayed alongside each other.


But back to what this exhibition is really all about: apartheid in South Africa. As to be expected, images are presented of whites inflicting mental and physical torture on non-whites, including the most infamous of all, the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Other examples include a shot of a young man playing his makeshift guitar at the door of his burned-out home, and, photographs dealing with the imposition of the 'Pass Laws'. These laws required a non-white to carry a pass book when outside his / her designated area, and any white (a child even) could demand to see it. Prison was possible for a non-white failing to comply.


Photographs are also shown of other humiliating activities non-whites had to carry out, such as delivery-boy at a whites-only party, and, nanny to a white child. Good enough to look after your most treasured and personal 'possession', but not good enough to be considered equal? There are also pics of non-whites being used by the whites to do their vicious dirty work, such as where police are attacking demonstrators with batons. Were these non-white 'establishment-supporters' really complicit? Or, along with sufferers of other regimes led by dictators, such as Hitler, Gaddafi and Stalin, tolerant to save their own lives? I wish the exhibition told me what I think I know.


In a similar vein, we know from what whites have said since, and the fact that some left South Africa, that not all of them supported apartheid. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not show this, presumably because opponents were unable to express their views openly for fear of reprisal. What it could have supplied more easily perhaps, and what would have been very informative, is a quote or two from the white nationalists which attempted to justify their actions.


What I fear the exhibition does say very clearly, is that following Nelson Mandela's African National Congress becoming the majority partner in the Government of National Unity in 1994, whites are now becoming oppressed. I'm sure that South African rulers would dispute this, but there are shots to suggest it is partly true at least. For instance, there is an image of a white woman begging at a roadside, and another of a white farmer suffering from positive discrimination / affirmative action policies. There are also other samples of what whites may see as negative effects. For instance, could there ever have been a non-white youth sniffing glue, in the formerly upmarket white area of Hillbrow in Johannesburg, before that election? This exhibition implies not.


Equally though, there are images which suggest that the groups can now co-exist peacefully, such as the lone white schoolgirl in a class of otherwise non-whites, and the old white gent collecting his meal alongside a non-white. I'm not sure the harmony is convincing enough though.


Therefore, my feelings about what this exhibition suggests are best summarised with extracts of comments on display there. Firstly by Desmond Tutu, who headed the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission. He said ' .... those who forget the past, are doomed to repeat it'. Ian Berry himself said '.... South Africa manages to be .... dispiriting in the familiarity of its prejudices ....'. I left the exhibition not feeling sad that one group of humans can be so hateful, but, Libya please note, I left feeling even more sad than that.


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