Yesterday after the bookstore I took my sister to the Apartheid Museum. It was my first time too and I learned a lot. One of the biggest things I was haunted by was the work displayed in the museum by the photographer Ernest Cole. I remember reading about him in a NYT article some time ago and was blown away by his images of apartheid era South Africa. He gave voice to the voiceless and gave us a window and record of life for black South Africans. He snuck his camera into mines, marches, and the street (a black man walking around with expensive cameras in apartheid Joburg was not an easy feat). He successfully had himself re-classified as Coloured and since they typically received more privileges than blacks, he was able to escape into exile to New York City in 1966. He published his photos and writings in a book called House of Bondage (it was banned in SA during apartheid) which I am going to start immediately when my sister leaves. Tragically he spent most of the 70’s and 80’s homeless and without his cameras. Ernest Cole died at the age of 49 a few weeks after Nelson Mandela was freed from jail. A lot of his lost images were found in Sweden after his death and are currently making their way around the world in exhibitions.
One lucky thing about living in different countries around the world is that you get to take a little ownership of many different cultures. It’s always cool when those cultures mix in a way you hadn’t previously realized. Paul Simon’s Graceland album was a staple on family road trips in a lot of childhoods of people around our age group. We were too young to remember or fully comprehend the controversy Simon caused when he came here to Johannesburg to record it in 1985; he was breaking the international cultural boycott against South Africa and her apartheid government (though the album showcased black South African musicians and obviously didn’t support the apartheid government). For the 25th anniversary of the Graceland album, the documentary Under African Skies examines that controversy through footage of recordings and tours, and interviews with Simon, Paul McCartney, David Byrne, Hugh Masekela, Ray Phiri, Joseph Shabalala and many more. It was really cool and touching to see the story behind such a fixture of American culture that was recorded right here in the city I love and live in as an adult. 25 years after it was made, apartheid is a thing of the past, but the country still hasn’t yet fully healed. I can’t decide on my favorite moment of the documentary. One was the interviews with Joseph Shabalala and other members of Ladysmith Black Mamabazo about their trip to the U.S. to promote the album and perform on Saturday Night Live. When they got to NYC, they asked Simon where they must go to get a pass to visit Central Park, it hadn’t sunk in yet that they were free to go where they pleased. Here’s a good excerpt of all the artists sing N’kosi Sikeleli (then the unofficial and now part of the national anthem) and another one of Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon singing Under African Skies.