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Photo exhibit curated by IU historian now in South Africa

Feb. 13, 2014

When IU historian Alex Lichtenstein was putting together an exhibit of Margaret Bourke-White's South Africa photographs from 1949-50, he knew it should be shared with the people of South Africa.

Now that is happening.

The dawn of apartheid

"Photos in Black and White: Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid in South Africa" opened in January at the Bensusan Museum of Photography in Johannesburg's Museum Africa, where it has been generating buzz among news media, photography enthusiasts and South Africans interested in their nation's history.

"For me, it's been a thrill to have this exhibit in South Africa," said Lichtenstein, an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. "That really was the goal."

The exhibit debuted last fall at IU Bloomington's Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Its showing in South Africa coincides with the celebration of the 20-year anniversary of the end of apartheid and the establishment of the nation's multiracial democracy.

Bourke-White, the Life magazine "camera queen" and celebrated chronicler of the Great Depression, visited South Africa just as white Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch-speaking settlers, had taken charge of the government and instituted laws that required strict racial separation.

"That is an important moment," Lichtenstein said. "It's right when apartheid, the state-mandated system of segregation that was driven by Afrikaner nationalism, is being set in stone."

Bourke-White ingratiated herself with white officialdom, and one of her first photographs shows a crowd of 250,000 people at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument, a celebration of Afrikaner heritage. But as a political progressive who had advocated civil rights and photographed the horrors of Nazism, she was outraged by South Africa's oppression of its black majority and South Asian minority.

'The whole thing makes me ... sick'

A second feature that she produced for Life, called "South Africa and Its Problem," focused on the plight of black South Africans working in mines and on prison farms and crowded into shantytowns. The exhibit includes letters that Bourke-White wrote on the plane as she left Africa, in which she expressed her horror at their treatment.

"The whole thing makes me really just sick," she wrote.

Many of the photos in the exhibit did not appear in Life.

Writing in the Johannesburg Sunday Times, books editor Tymon Smith says the exhibit "shows the full extent of Bourke-White's activism as a photojournalist heavily influenced by the antifascist leftist environment she had emerged from to document the changes sweeping the world after the Great Depression and during World War II."

For Lichtenstein, Bourke-White's work matches his scholarly interest in the history of labor and civil rights struggles in societies shaped by white supremacy, especially South Africa and the American South. Curating the exhibit also expanded his research to the activism of photographers and other artists who were part of the Popular Front political left in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

"I've just had a great time doing this," he said. "It is a new outlet for me in terms of scholarship."

The exhibit, continuing its stay in South Africa, will move in April to the Michaelis Galleries at the University of Cape Town and in June to the Durban Art Gallery. Lichtenstein and University of Toronto historian Rick Halpern will produce a book based on the exhibit for IU Press.

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