Collective Storytelling

last edited on Mon. July 10 2023

Navigating African History, Photography, and Diasporic Identity through Images

As the first exhibition that originated at the Smart Museum of Art that focused on art from Africa, not all realisms: photography, Africa, and the long 1960s (February 23–June 4, 2023) brought together an array of photographic prints, publications, and printed ephemera. The interplay of materials in the exhibition in turn helped generate playlists and performances, classroom discussions, new essays, and other links to still more books and archives. Here, exhibition curator Leslie M. Wilson, in conversation with recent UChicago graduate, storyteller, and Chicago Critics Table Fellow, Meralis Alvarez-Morales (MAPH 2023), shares a few final reflections on the arc of the exhibition’s history and unexpected connections.

Meralis: What would become the exhibition not all realisms was a project that began for you long before it went on view to the public. I think it is important to mention, that not all realisms was a landmark exhibition—one of the only of its kind at the Smart. I consider this exhibition to focus on Black and Pan-African History, engaging with Afro-descendants from all over the diaspora, grappling with issues on independence, maps, visual media, cultural productions, Politics and politics, the globally legitimate and illegitimate ways of being as a member of the diaspora, and infinitely more. Considering where and when the concept and ideas for this exhibition—and the research that when along with it—were birthed and its current place in the exhibition history of the Smart Museum, how do you imagine this exhibition will live in the history that defines the University of Chicago?

Leslie: It was really exciting to have the opportunity to develop this project at UChicago precisely for the chance to think about the new conversations and new teaching opportunities that it could foster.

I started developing this project when I was the Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts from 2019–2021. In that role, I worked closely with Berit Ness to get to know the aspects of the collection that most closely connect with my areas of research, which meant photography and new media, art made in Africa and the African diaspora, and art made in America. Admittedly, given my areas of focus, I felt a bit daunted at first learning that the Smart only had four photographs in its collection made by African photographers, three photographs by the South African photographer Ernest Cole and one photograph by the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. But I also benefitted from having been a graduate student here in Art History, having gotten to know the collection here at Regenstein Library and at Northwestern’s Herskovits Library, and getting to know the holdings at the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the Booth School of Business here at UChicago. As I began to think more deeply about the importance of the book for Ernest Cole and the significant connections between popular magazines like Bingo and Drum and the studio and event photography of photographers like Malick Sidibé, I started to see that I could highlight materials from across these collections in ways that could encourage new ways to engage these materials. That was a big full circle moment for me!

I am so thrilled that developing this exhibition saw the Smart Museum collect several photographs by the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor and the French photographer Marc Riboud! To bring that together with generous loans from a wide range of collections was amazing. It has been wonderful to see how innovative courses like “Idea of Africa” taught by Adom Getachew and Natacha Nsabimana, “African Civilizations” taught by Kathryn Takabvirwa, and “Site-Based Practice: Choreographing the Smart Museum” taught by Julia Rhoads have engaged with that exhibition. I had hoped that the exhibition would invite engagement with the interdisciplinary approaches foregrounded in those courses, so that was really special.

And then, while researching this project, I began to delve into the history of discourse and activism around Pan-Africanism and the anti-apartheid movement at UChicago—reading far more old issues of the Chicago Maroon and University of Chicago Magazine than I ever imagined! There’s coverage of talks that the political scientist David Apter delivered at International House about Pan-Africanism in November 1960, student-led demonstrations in January 1967 against Illinois Continental National Bank for its participation in a consortium loaning money to the South African government, a rally in the quad in support of the Soweto uprisings in 1976 that used the photographer Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson, and a “Teach-In On South Africa and Apartheid” in October 1985, which featured a debate over divestment between President Hannah Holborn Gray and the executive director of the American Committee on Africa, Jennifer Davis. It was important that this exhibition engage with these histories and the efforts of organizations like the African Students Union, so that this show at the Smart enters a much longer and complex history at UChicago—and area deserving of much more research and discussion.

Meralis: I think most people would agree that we live in a digital age, in which film, photographs, and other kinds of digital media are seemingly taken for granted; rightfully so, considering that we know consume hundreds of images a day in the form of advertisements, documents, and the embodiment of a friend's important milestone. I admit that most days, I feel overwhelmed by the number of images I come across. But in not all realisms, there are over 200 objects, most of which are images, and the quietness of the gallery invited quiet and deep reflection with each one. The images themselves were stunning and provocative. In the companion reader, specifically in the introduction, you begin to elaborate more on the importance of photography for you. Citing family photographic archives and referencing to photos taken by your parents from the 1960s, mentioning that you “thought about how [photographs] informed my own imaginings about the sixties, a time that I didn’t personally experience but which has felt culturally and politically alive in my life.”

Out of the many points of entry that one could use to consider 1960s, why did photography stand out to you? And you didn’t just include photographs, you also included the magazines and periodicals in which these photographs were published, why is this doorway into the recent past more significant than others you may have come across in your research? And, to complicate matters, considering how photographs can function as artfully made portraits, historical documents, and evidence, how might photography complicate history, especially when it is on view on digital and social media platforms?

Leslie: I am especially attracted to the ways that photographs function as documents. As a form of record, we need to be critical in our engagement with them, and I want to think about when we remember to be critical and when we forget and the way that we are often living somewhere between those two states. When an exciting cache of photographs resurfaces, people often emphasize the value of the images as offering a window into a particular period of time, that we come away with more evidence of what things were like. But I find myself more interested in circulation and delays, hiccups and fragmentation, the dynamics between play and power. And so, the romance that I might find in looking to my family’s photographs—I want to interrogate it. To do that, my view expanded far beyond individual prints, and I wanted to think about the relationships between the production and flows of printed matter.

Meralis: We’ve talked a lot about how long the 1960s really is. In a way, the political conditions of 1960s Africa continue to exist outside of the territorial bounds of the continent, and not all realisms gestures to the immortality of the 1960s and its contradictions. An era marked by so much change, and yet many elders in my own community feel that since then, not much has changed; quickly pointing to racial discrimination and economic disparities as among the things that have remained unchanged. As an Afro-Indigenous descended Puerto Rican woman, I often think about how little my existence, history, and being is defined by beauty, joy, or love. I often feel that the only way in which greater society registers my existence is through a language and visual narrative defined by violence and pain. So many of the images shown in this exhibition beautifully illustrate the complexities of life as a melaninated-other. A single story cannot possibly define an entire continent and every nation within it. Or can it? How are we, the “we” here being those of us within the Pan-African diaspora, supposed to embark on conversations that seemingly anchor us to an immovable and unchanging reality? How can we use the images we have at home, on our phones, and elsewhere to rewrite and overwrite the collective histories that tie us together, and even heal? Were there any images in the exhibition that radically changed how you embark on these conversations?

Leslie: I love this question. My hope was that the exhibition addressed many, many stories, but also showed some of the less expected connections between certain photographers and photographic traditions. Photographers like Ernest Cole, James Barnor, and many others in the exhibition were part of very expansive international networks, and their practices cover so many subjects. If/when we honor the complexity of their work, that necessitates the more robust storytelling and representation that you’re speaking to.

This makes me think about the inclusion of the never-before-published chapter “Black Ingenuity” in the recent reissue of House of Bondage (New York: Aperture, 2022), which features terrific essays by Mongane Wally Serote, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, and James Sanders. That new edition speaks powerfully to the tension over the place for creativity and celebration in a time of struggle. But I think this is also part of why I was so grateful for the loans of Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s work When the Going Is Smooth and Good (2017) and Sam Nhlengethwa’s Inspired by Romare Bearden and Ernest Cole (2018), which hold—especially in their use of collage and layering—multiplicity and entanglement as surface and substance. Those works show how the artists are drawing on many pasts. They are drawing on a breadth of personal and mass media materials and references to prompt viewers to consider the many histories that inform a moment. They may prompt reconsideration of how people attend to their photographs and care for them—seeing new potential in them. But I don’t think these works offer up an easy nostalgia. They are at turns tender and heartbreaking, playful and tense.

Meralis: Looking to the future, where might future iterations of this project go next? You’ve created a visual anthology—a visual soundtrack of sorts—that considers the 1960s in Africa differently than I’ve seen before. Is there a musical soundtrack or oral-history soundtrack in the works that we can look forward to seeing that continues to grapple with issues of coloniality and postcoloniality in Africa and beyond?

Leslie: There is! It feels like it’s still a work in progress, but it has been so wonderful to work with Aneesah Ettress Veatch to pull it together. And many of the songs that we included in the playlist for the exhibition were suggested to us by artists, by faculty, and by our colleagues in the Museum. Kathryn Takabvirwa’s essay in the not all realisms companion reader (PDF), asks us to not just look at Ernest Cole’s photograph of a crowd of Black people getting on an already crowded train—Hats and Men Cram onto Train No. 3 (c. 1965)—but to also think about the fact that the photograph was made a year after the release of a cover of Basin Blue’s “Wenyuk’umbombela” featuring Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte—the train song. Music is so intimately connected to the context for the photographs throughout the exhibition. And photographs like Malick Sidibé’s Nuit de Noël (Happy Club) (1963), which feature dancers, hold a particular charge because they encourage viewers to wonder at the music that is sparking that energy.

Meralis: I’m also thinking about how in many ways Africa is still used as the global marker of progress. For many years, I was taught in American schools, media, and film to think of Africa and her people as a desolate wasteland whose days of glory have long been behind her. A lot of those conclusions come from images taken in 1940s–1960s, and even older portraits produced in height of the colonial era (15th century to about the 19th century). Yet, in not all realisms, I felt and saw an Africa that was complex, glorious, and incredibly flawed—in the same way that many other countries are—and yet, when seeing others confronted with different images—photos that showed Black men and woman dancing, laughing, and decorated in the coolest fashion—I couldn’t help but feel a tension in the room. A lingering question that seemed too frightening to ask. “Why focus on Africa now? Is this a Black Art/Black History Museum? This isn’t the Africa I know, are we living in the same universe?”, among others. How might you invite us to sit with those questions? And as the kids say, how might we sit with our “feelings,” when they so poignantly illustrate a historical gap in our Human-history-cannon-timeline that only seems to widen?

Leslie: The project of nation-building, of caring for our communities, of creating systems in which people’s voices are not just heard but nurtured—these are ongoing efforts. This work is never done. The work of decolonization in Ghana, in Mali, in South Africa, and in so many other nations has not been linear, and it is not over. But if the struggle to achieve the goals of democratic movements has not immediately been successful, then all too often these efforts have been written off—in many quarters—as failures. And that is a problem. However, engaging with the ideas and stakes of African and African diasporic solidarity movements—in their many forms—can be deeply instructive for better understanding the global implications of these histories and these futures.

There is so much important artwork and scholarship that delves into that complexity, and I was excited to have the chance to include a mini-library inside of the exhibition to point to a small sliver of the terrific work that has emerged over the last several decades to which this project is indebted. My hope is that the specific examples in an exhibition like not all realisms join with those other projects to contribute to the discussion. I know that this project has sparked so many more research rabbit holes for me, and I hope that it has stoked that for many of the visitors to the exhibition.

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