Priya Ramrakha: A Pan-African Perspective 1950-1968
Curators Erin Haney and Shravan Vidyarthi, in partnership with the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD), University of Johannesburg
5 October – 1 November 2017 FADA Gallery, Johannesburg [exhibition travelling in South Africa, Kenya, the UK and the US]
The Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD), University of Johannesburg (UJ), commissioned the inaugural exhibition of the work of African photojournalist, Priya Ramrakha, which chronicles his exploration of anti-colonial and post-independence struggles. Showcasing a collection of photographs that illuminate watershed moments and political movements in Africa and the Unites States, this exhibition offers audiences a chance to rethink key political and historical narratives, and revisit the struggles, celebrations and lived experiences of the independence era in Africa. Vidyarthi’s award-winning documentary film ‘African Lens, The Story of Priya Ramrakha’ (2007) was screened as part of this exhibition at University of Johannesburg.
This conversation between the curators broaches some of the questions addressed during the related colloquium presented by VIAD, Inhabiting the Frame, 9-10 October 2017.
EH: As people have been responding to Priya Ramrakha’s photography here in Johannesburg, from Johannesburg audiences and UJ students to the formidable range of South African photographers in attendance, we have heard lots of ‘I haven’t seen anything quite like this’. Many of these comments get to the core of the absence of cliché and the element of surprise in Priya’s images. Attending this there is a deep curiosity about who Priya was, and how much his own path defied so many boundaries and obstacles of his time, and how those are reflected within his images.
Previous to this, you and I have had ongoing conversations about how Priya was, like others in his family, a kind of an outlier and risk-taker with a deep curiosity in a world that was quite rigidly constrained and circumscribed in colonial-era Kenya; and that he also seemed to channel those social strands of optimism and progress from the African, Indian, and international anti-colonial movements underway. Of course, a photographer doesn’t need to be inherently outsider or subversive in order to produce great work. But from what you have said, all accounts point to his exceptional ability to put all kinds of people at ease and get close to his subjects without threat or alarm. Yet, in many ways Priya was just that – an outsider who defied expectations and went his own way – convincing the public of the importance of political leaders and events by heading straight for the key moments, and often, the dangerous situations. He convinced national and global audiences through his images.
SV: Priya’s sense of himself–this is a question that I still struggle with: what can we know of him given how much of his life’s story remains unknown. In my family, we knew of Priya, and that he was a well-respected photojournalist. He was a cousin of my father. We knew that he died young, covering the frontlines of the war in Biafra in 1968. There were a few issues of LIFE with his photos that we had around the house. But we knew very little of his life beyond that. We don’t have any recordings of his voice or on video, we don’t have much of his own words in diaries or substantive writing.
The range of places that Priya could travel to, and the broad scope of the subjects he managed to photograph in such a short time span is itself a remarkable thing. Those are key parts of his biography and history. But beyond those photos in his family collections and ours, we also had very little sense of even where his photos were when we first started to explore his story. This was an essential source of his narrative that was missing.
I started to piece together Priya’s life story first by interviewing journalists who knew him well, and complementing those with interviews with his family and friends, and centering on the small number of his photos in family collections. These later became the basis for my documentary film, African Lens: The Story of Priya Ramrakha, (2007). That research, including on the images located at the time, began in 2004. It was only after the film started screening that we managed to recover thousands more prints, negatives and albums from Priya’s family and friends across Kenya, the US and Europe. It took me and a team of people in Kenya and the US working almost a decade to begin to assess and organise the contents of this collection. And this has been a series of surprises and discoveries, based on an archive that was totally obscured, or even presumed lost. So that these photos are now on display for the first time in more than fifty years, has been thrilling.
EH: Even while Priya left no written records as to his intentions or views as to what his work and his photographs could do, in your film you make a strong case for the deep influence of politics and anti-colonial effort in shaping his career path and drive. The segregation and the deprivations of African Kenyans, and the disparities between them, Indian Kenyans and British settlers under the colonial system of the colour bar was something Priya would have seen and witnessed daily. In the 1940s and 1950s, the efforts of those African and Indian freedom fighters, as activists, leaders, would-be citizens who worked together and joined forces towards independence were communicated and spurred on by the anti-British press. One key figure in those movements was Priya’s uncle GL Vidyarthi, who as Editor of the Colonial Times newspaper was fined and imprisoned for sedition, and whose press published other rebellious Indian and African newspapers. Priya’s early photographs tested the systems of press freedom and propaganda in Kenya at a crucial moment, in the earliest years of the anti-colonial war known as Mau Mau, and the government’s response declaring the 1952 State of Emergency.
SV: Right. There are fascinating examples of this, where Priya’s photographs of the same event are storylined in different ways. A spread of Priya’s photos of a Royal agricultural show for the colonial paper The Citizen features white audiences and dignitaries, whereas a spread covering the same event in the Colonial Times focused on segregated and shoddy facilities for non-white Kenyans at the show, with captions that comment directly on Kenya’s racist colour bar, access to land, and political rights.
Even before that, the early guerilla incursions of Mau Mau were nearly impossible to adequately cover in the free press, and especially after 1952 when the rebellious presses were effectively gagged and others simply closed down. In 1952 Priya was only 18 when he travelled to photograph one of the earliest atrocities – the Lari massacre. He captured the rounding up of innocent Kikuyu and Embu people during Operation Anvil in Nairobi, which included members of his family’s staff and friends. The colonial regime tightly controlled photo-ops of detained prisoners in camps, and all of these were critical lessons in press freedom—none of those photos were publishable in Kenya. Later on, his work for the east African office of Drum magazine was quite heavily policed. Safer subjects, such as Jomo Kenyatta in prison, or the rising star Tom Mboya and his fellow pan-Africanist leaders who went on to negotiate independence—these images were printable. But at that time, it would have been impossible to publish around the dirty war colonial Kenya and Britain waged in Kenya’s prison camps, and scenes of the prisoners and torture were of course hidden from public view.
EH: Later on, Priya travelled to the US. He trained in Los Angeles, and during that time was also publishing with Time and LIFE between 1960-63. The lessons of what kind of work he would have been commissioned to do, or what kinds of important stories needed to be told, was not necessarily more straightforward there either, right?
SV: Yes, certainly these would have been very much dictated by the editorial constraints—American demand for content from Africa tended towards the exotic, and at best, photos and stories that tried to convey and capture what unfolding independence meant in terms of geopolitical strategy and the Cold War.
But also while he was in the US Priya had a new opportunity to photograph the everyday scenes that of course looked very different than what was at home. More freedom to mix with people, more freedom to move around. But he was also drawn to leaders, to the civil rights movement, so there are pictures of Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X, Kennedy and Nixon’s presidential contest, the edges of political protests around race as they played out in LA and New York. These were absolutely resonating with the new wave of leadership coming to the fore in Africa, and of course we know many of these leaders were constantly interacting with and supporting each other within the continent, Europe and the US. So Priya’s photos captured some of those greats, but also people who were the activist and cultural vanguard, such as the South African singer Miriam Makeba, who was supporting the education of the young generation of African students who were studying in the US—raising money, supporting South African efforts in various ways. It’s when we see the variety of the people he photographed that it becomes so clear what stories might have been told through his images—the stories he believed were relevant and significant, and how rarely those aligned with editorial demand or possibility.
EH: Even though Priya was compelled by those stories around experiences of race, civil rights, anti-colonial struggles and the experiences of independence, he was not the only photographer doing this. It’s more landmark that he was one of the first photographers from the continent to do so while moving across so many national boundaries, and doing so at such an unprecedented level, as one of the first photographers to work for Time and LIFE. (At least this is true at the time of this writing, and we imagine others will of course emerge as scholarship and support of local photographic and historical archives continues.) In South Africa, there was Ernest Cole, Peter Magubane, Bob Gosani, Alf Khumalo and so many others who were such important photographers, whose work was contemporary in some cases to Priya, and which marked similar paths, but they couldn’t travel across these colonial and national borders as working press photographers.
SV: Priya’s movement was as an outlier in many aspects, he had a British passport thanks to the accident of Indian descent and birth in colonial Kenya. He covered a Rhodesian Front banquet for Ian Smith, gaining admittance to the white-only party using his Time/LIFE press pass. But you know, heading to cover Biafra from the UK he needed to fly via Sao Tome, a Portuguese colony, where he faced discrimination as an Indian, even with his British passport—there are telegraphs from the Life editorial team trying to work around that. So, there’s lots there, of his own tremendous effort to just move around and access a given place.
EH: You’ve said that Kenya doesn’t celebrate its heroes. That Tom Mboya, so many key people and efforts have been obscured, not mentioned, forgotten in the divisiveness and political turmoil that ensued in Kenya after independence, and especially during the time you were growing up there. That the role of Indian Kenyans in that lead up to independence, and the disappointments that followed, are one of many things that this archive offers today’s audiences. So there are really important possibilities in this work for Kenya, but also as we are seeing, in South Africa, for UK, American, for global audiences really.
SV: To think of his work as a photojournalist, during this most intense of eras, the extraordinary breadth of subjects he covered is really inspiring to me. But when we go through the material, it is quite obviously not all political. There is so much of his relishing everyday visions, of bicyclists on the streets, of a father cradling his baby, of beautiful women. It was really a wide array, he was constantly looking around and connecting with the world via his camera. The everyday stream of the world that is there in his archive I think is wonderful to see. So, to think of his work as simply political, or even straightforward or divided along those lines, is maybe too simplistic. His work is just so much more complex, ambiguous and expansive for that.
EH: Seeing this work come to public attention for the first time here in South Africa came at quite a potent moment, in the midst of ongoing student protests and really important concerns about education, systematic and structural inequalities, and the disappointments that the younger generation in particular are facing. UJ’s arts faculty hosted an event that coincided with the early days of exhibition – on shaping, decolonizing and rethinking the curriculum.
SV: I get that frustration. We definitely did not learn much about Kenya’s history, its leaders, its literature, its arts in the way we learned about, say, Shakespeare. While this exhibition opened, we fielded a few questions about how this project fits into the current concerns in South Africa about rethinking the curriculum, but of course you and I have been working on these ideas of photos as necessary for education, more broadly, and for quite some time. You and I agree that works like Priya’s, as well as the content, the histories, the images and the consciousness of where we get our sources for education—all of this is an ongoing concern. And of course, we aren’t the only ones interested in this, we are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of people working on supporting archives like this, the untold stories, which we all can recognize are so hidden, so marginalized, and only come to light as the result of individual and community efforts.
EH: And those debates continue here in a way that also is very particular to South Africa, around the individual efforts people make, writing and featuring and supporting exhibitions. So VIAD hosting this has been a key moment, but one that was not free from the longer and more tangled histories of photography, representation, and who gets to tell the stories that move into public awareness. These efforts are hotly debated, but the great thing also is that here there are so many platforms upon which to write, perform, and speak one’s mind about these things.
SV: It’s actually not a bad thing because here it’s very clear that art, photography, representations of the past and the present are valuable, they are worth taking seriously. It’s been a fascinating way to see Priya’s work circle back into the world.
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 at the National Gallery and at MoMA, on PBS, and have featured in The New York Times. Vidyarthi created the Priya Ramrakha Foundation in 2010, a non-profit organisation which manages the archive.
Erin Haney collaborates with artists on photo and media histories, politics and creative institutions around the continent. Recent projects include her work with resolutionphoto.org, and curating the exhibition Sailors and Daughters on the photography in the Indian Ocean world for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Haney teaches at the Corcoran School of Art & Design, Washington DC, and is Research Associate at VIAD, University of Johannesburg. Her research appears in Aperture, Hyperallergic, Critical Interventions, and her book Photography and Africa (Reaktion, 2010).