PRIYA RAMRAKHA: A PAN-AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE, 1950-1968
Curated by Erin Haney & Shravan Vidyarthi, in partnership with the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD)
5 October – 1 November 2017 FADA Gallery, FADA Building, Bunting Road Campus
Presented in this exhibition is the first comprehensive survey of images by pioneering Kenyan photojournalist Priya Ramrakha. Following the recent recovery of his archive in Nairobi, and the subsequent production of an award-winning documentary by Shravan Vidyarthi (African Lens – The Story of Priya Ramrakha, 2008), the photographs on show track Ramrakha’s global travels in the 1950s and 1960s, and his sensitive chronicling of anti-colonial and post-independence struggles.
Born into an activist journalistic family, Ramrakha contributed to his uncle’s paper, The Colonial Times, which subversively advocated for Black and Asian rights in Kenya. Another outlet for his images was the Johannesburg-based Drum magazine, which opened an office in Nairobi in 1954 under the directorship of South African writer and photographer GR Naidoo. Photographing life under Kenya’s colour bar, Ramrakha’s pictures countered the privileged colonial purview of the mainstream press, which consistently reinforced British settler interests. This is especially evident in his coverage of the Mau Mau rebellion – an anti-colonial movement discredited by British propaganda as both an ‘irrational force of evil’ and a communist-inspired terrorist threat. Ramrakha’s images of detentions, forced removals and urban protests tell another story; bearing witness to the severe backlash and State of Emergency enacted by the colonial administration, in which over a million Kikuyu people were displaced, starved, forced into hard labour, and at times tortured and killed.
Negotiating the censorial context of 1950s Kenya, Ramrakha tracked a growing independence and Pan-Africanist movement – photographing key figures like Tom Mboya, Ronald Ngala and Jomo Kenyatta, as well the more everyday experiences, contributions and political aspirations of Black and Asian communities in the country. Studying for a period in the United States, he similarly captured a range of figures and socio-political encounters, ranging from Malcolm X to Miriam Makeba, and from everyday inter-racial encounters to the public protests of civil rights activists – one of whom bears a placard reading, “Twenty Million American Negroes are Suffering American Colonialism”.
Returning to Kenya in the early 1960s, Ramrakha became one of the first African photojournalists to work for TIME and Life magazines. With the mobility and access afforded by this position, he went on to chronicle key independence moments across the continent, as well as Afrocentric cultural celebrations like the 1966 Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres in Dakar. Most hard-hitting, however, are the largely unpublished images of conflict and lived experiences of war he captured in such contested territories as Aden, Czechoslovakia and Nigeria. Caught in the cross-fire of Federal and Biafran troops, he died near Owerri in Southern Nigeria (then the Republic of Biafra) on October 2nd, 1968.
In chronicling the complex, often marginalised struggles and aspirations of the independence era in Africa, and in situating these as lived human experiences – not only of suffering, but also of celebration and community – Ramrakha’s archive to some degree re-centres the democratising vision and liberal humanitarian impulse of mid-century ‘high’ photojournalism. In this respect, his attention to everyday expressions of resistance and freedom, and the sustained anti-colonial narrative of his visual commentary, speaks to his distinctive position as a Kenyan-Indian correspondent, rooted in a subversive and largely unacknowledged history of Asian and Black press collaborations in Africa. In profiling his work, this exhibition affords viewers an opportunity to both revisit these narratives of colonial disentanglement, as well as to consider the ethical imperatives, dilemmas and implied politics of their documentation. Applied to the present, such enquiry is pertinent in the light of recent (and ongoing) activism around decolonisation in South Africa, and its relation not only to the press but also to new technologies of image making and dissemination, and the associated emergence of ‘citizen photography’.
Thursday 5 October, 18:00 for 18:30 – opening address by Professor Dan Ojwang
FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg
Exhibition walkabout (with curators Erin Haney & Shravan Vidyarthi):
Friday 6 October – details TBC
‘Inhabiting the Frame: Documentary & Subjectivity in the anti|post|colonial visual archive’ Monday 9 & Tuesday 10 October
FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg
ERIN HANEY | CURATOR: As a curator and researcher, Erin Haney collaborates with artists and writers interested in photography, media histories, politics and creative institutions. Recent projects include the pioneering 3PA workshop, Porto-Novo, Benin, and the exhibition Sailors and Daughters, which was supported by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Professor Haney teaches photo, film, art and new media histories at the Corcoran School of Art & Design, Washington D.C, and is a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD), University of Johannesburg, and at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Haney has published widely, authoring Photography and Africa (Reaktion, 2010), and contributing articles and essays to Africa is a Country, Hyperallergic, Public Culture, Critical Addresses and Autograph (to name a few). She is presently working with Shravan Vidyarthi on an edited volume on the life and work of Priya Ramrakha.
SHRAVAN VIDYARTHI | CURATOR: Shravan Vidyarthi is a filmmaker and photographer based in New York and Nairobi. His documentary film African Lens – the Story of Priya Ramrakha won best African Film at the 2008 Zanzibar International Film Festival, and again at the Kenya International Film Festival. Vidyarthi’s films have screened on PBS and at MoMA, and have featured in The New York Times. He has been a guest speaker at the National Museum of African Art, the Smithsonian Institution, New York University, Columbia University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, and the University of Maryland. Vidyarthi studied English, French and African Studies at the University of Georgetown, Washington D.C, and has an MA in Media Studies from the New School, New York. Vidyarthi is currently working with Erin Haney on an edited volume on the life and work of Priya Ramrakha.
For more information on the exhibition programme, please contact:
James Macdonald / VIAD Curatorial & Research Manager
[t] +27(0)11 559 1442
[c] +27(0)84 566 2121