Revolutionary portraits of Black life in apartheid South Africa

Revolutionary portraits of Black life in apartheid South Africa

Back in print six decades after it was originally banned, ‘House of Bondage’ revisits the seminal body of work that saw photographer Ernest Cole exiled from his homeland.

Black South African photographer Ernest Cole (1940-1990) was just eight-years-old when the National Party instituted apartheid in 1948. Growing up in a small township in Pretoria, Cole bore witness to the harrowing impact of racial segregation as he came of age.

“He was among the first generation to experience Hendrik Verwoerd’s vision of Bantu Education, which restricted the education of Africans to serve the labor needs of the South African economy,” says Leslie Matlaisane, a representative of the Ernest Cole Family Trust and Cole's nephew.

Rather than accept a third class education, Cole quit school in 1957. The following year, he joined Drum, the revolutionary magazine dedicated to Black SA culture where he met artists and activists dedicated to the emerging anti-apartheid movement.

Top to bottom: A teacher towards the end of her day in school (South Africa, 1960s). With no room inside the train, some ride between cars (South Africa, 1960s).

Inspired, Cole began chronicling the daily lives of Black South Africans with warmth, empathy and understanding. From the late 1950s to mid-60s, he documented the insidious spread of apartheid into every corner of their lives – be it housing, transportation, employment, healthcare, education or penal system – despite becoming a target for surveillance and intimidation by the state himself.

In 1966, Cole made the ultimate sacrifice for his homeland and went into exile in to publish his groundbreaking 1967 book, House of Bondage, which exposed global audiences to the harrowing realities apartheid for the very first time.

“The captions in Mr. Cole’s book are as piercing as his pictures of Black life under apartheid in South Africa,” says Matlaisane. “The texts match the photographs in communication and impact. They offer a mix of explanation and experience that drives home the despair and existential absurdity of life for Black South Africans.”

Top to bottom: The whistle has sounded and the train is moving, but people are still trying to get on (South Africa, 1960s). Untitled (South Africa, 1960s). Typical location has acres of identical four-room houses on nameless streets. Many are hours by train from city jobs (South Africa, 1960s). Sometimes a check broadens into a search of a man’s person and belongings (South Africa, 1960s).

In response to the critical and commercial success of House of Bondage, South Africa banned Cole and the book in 1968, leaving him stateless for the remainder of his life. “When he left South Africa he thought he would focus his talents on other aspects of life, which he assumed would be more hopeful, and [have] some joy to it,” says Matlaisane.

Over time Cole’s fortune dimmed and his photographs were forgotten. He died in 1990 at age 49, just one week after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Then, in 2017, a cache of more than 60,000 negatives thought lost for over 40 years was discovered safely tucked away in a Swedish bank, inspiring a new look at this seminal body of work.

Top to bottom: Pensive tribesmen, newly recruited to mine labour, await processing and assignment (South Africa,1960s). At assignment desk, clerk’s rubber stamp dictates mine where man will work (South Africa, 1960s).

After six decades, Ernest Cole: House of Bondage is back in print. Published in conjunction with exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Foam in Amsterdam, the book now includes a previously abandoned chapter titled “Black Ingenuity” that features images of Black SA musicians, artists, actors and athletes who worked out of the famous Dorkay House in Johannesburg.

The chapter is a revelation whose time has come. “Mr. Cole spent much of his lifetime struggling to overcome the shackles of expectation placed on him to live a lifetime being a chronicler of misery and injustice and callousness,“ Matlaisane explains. “It is important to understand that a total man does not live one experience.”

“Ernest Cole: House of Bondage” opens May 5, 2023, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and will be on view through June 14, 2023, at Foam in Amsterdam. The book is published by Aperture.

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