Okwui Enwezor has come to appreciate at least one quality of South Africa’s notorious Department of Information—or, as the Nigeria-born curator likes to say, “Ministry of Disinformation.” Like most repressive regimes, it was rigorous about its record-keeping.
Over the last seven years, amidst his peregrinations to stage major international exhibitions, his stint as Dean of Academic Affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, and his move to Munich last year to run the Haus der Kunst, Enwezor spent a lot of time in those government archives as he crisscrossed South Africa in search of images of apartheid.
With the instincts of a detective, he tracked down pictures at government agencies, nonprofits, universities, newspapers and magazines, private homes, and other venues—reviewing, all told, about 30,000 items. With the rigor of a scholar, he edited them to some 500. These form the core of “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” the groundbreaking survey Enwezor organized with South African curator Rory Bester that opens at the International Center of Photography September 14.
Exploring the way these images were created, circulated, and ultimately used as regime-changers is the mission of the show. “The role of photography in the struggle against apartheid is far larger than we can really imagine,” Enwezor says. “It became one of the most persuasive, instrumental, ideological tools.”