not all realisms

February 23–June 4, 2023

A black and white photograph of two people dancing close together, their heads almost touching, the man in a suit and shoes and the woman in a dress and barefoot.

photography, Africa, and the long 1960s

The sixties were a long time coming. The sixties keep coming back.

For many parts of Africa, to refer to the 1960s is to gesture broadly toward a time of great transformation: the postcolonial turn. That decade’s beginning marks a wave of national independence movements coming to fruition in all parts of the continent with far-reaching consequences around the globe. However, that era of sweeping change is bound up in a chain of events long preceding that watershed decade, with ramifications that reach potently into our present. And any discussions merely offering a colonial/postcolonial dichotomy or framed exclusively through the nation-state betray the far more complex collective and individual experiences of that time and the visual representations taking place within it.

This exhibition addresses photography in the context of Africa’s long 1960s—amid resistance, revolution, new nationalist and transnational movements, and the stuff of daily life therein. Focusing on Ghana, Mali, and South Africa, this exhibition features photographic prints, reprints, books, magazines, posters, and other material means through which photography’s relationships to real people and events were articulated, produced, and circulated. And it looks to contemporary works that engage and reflect on those material histories and might prompt us to ask: did the sixties ever end?

Bridging the division often made between studio photography and reportage—even as many photographers worked across such categories in their practices—not all realisms brings studio and street together. This project explores documentary visions cultivated through international circulation of print media and transnational dialogues, and examines the multiple lives of single images made by photographers including Ernest Cole, Malick Sidibé, James Barnor, Peter Magubane, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and more.

Companion Reader

The exhibition is accompanied by a booklet (PDF) that offers an expanded series of cross-disciplinary perspectives on strategies of photography and image circulation in Ghana, Mali, and South Africa through the long 1960s and beyond. It features an in-depth essay by curator Leslie M. Wilson; contributions from University of Chicago faculty members Adom Getachew (Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science), Kathryn Takabvirwa (Assistant Professor of Anthropology), Natacha Nsabimana (Assistant Professor of Anthropology), and Emily Lynn Osborn (Associate Professor of African History); and select object treatments by UChicago Research Assistants Serin Lee (AB ’21), Daisy Coates (AB ’22), and Mariah Bender (AM ’22). This complimentary booklet is available for the taking within the exhibition or for digital download.

Download the Publication (PDF)

Top: Ernest Cole, From “House of Bondage,” 1960s, Gelatin silver print. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of the Estate of Lester and Betty Guttman, 2014.224. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photo. 

Above: Malick Sidibé, Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), 1963, Gelatin silver print. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of the Estate of Lester and Betty Guttman, 2014.720. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.