Black photographers have never received acknowledgement for their contributions and continue to be overlooked. Despite facing financial difficulties, they had to purchase their own cameras, unlike their white counterparts who were provided with cameras and allowances. White photographers did not show much interest in capturing images of black communities.

By Jabu Kumalo

Amid a relentless four-hour power outage, the unveiling of the legendary photographer Len Khumalo’s exhibition was an absolute jolt of electricity.

This magnificent display of artistic prowess has been brought to life through the joint efforts of Umhlabathi and the Len Khumalo Foundation. Dubbed The Collective Effort, this awe-inspiring exhibition made its grand debut on the 27th of May 2023 at the vibrant Umhlabathi venue, nestled in the heart of downtown Joburg.

The exhibition, captured in striking black and white imagery spanning over half a century, is a magnificent display of Khumalo’s life’s work as a photojournalist. From the tumultuous world of politics to the raw emotions of protests, and the daily struggles of the common folk, these photographs are a testament to the power of visual storytelling.

The mastermind behind the curation of this exhibition is none other than the brilliant Nthabeleng Mashudubele, with the equally talented Zinhle Gule serving as co-curator. Together, they have crafted a truly captivating showcase of artistry and creativity.

Nthabeleng said she got interested in the works of Khumalo while she was working with one of his daughters, Nkululeko Khumalo. At the time, she said she was not aware that she was amid greatness.

Nthabeleng said: “Every time I visited Nkululeko she was talking about scanning. Then one day I said let me volunteer to help with the scanning. Eventually, I found my way to photography. And that is when I started to engage with the work. There were beautiful portraits. I started to identify a few key figures.

“The people that I know from the mainstream narrative around our history. Then I realised I was brushing shoulders with someone who recorded giants. And I was shocked to find out that all this time I have been working alongside a legend. The images are so interconnected, and they are so layered. There are so many conversations that are coming from the images.”

She said a lot of the images are from the apartheid era “because that is the context which Bra Len was photographing.”

“The liberation struggle in South Africa is very broad but we only look at particular figures. While it is important to be looking at particular figures, it is also important to remember the people who put those public figures that are spoken about around the liberation. It is important to talk about the people who put those people in power.

“And also, the photographers and the photojournalists that we do not speak much about. They have sacrificed to get us to this space and to get us to liberation. So, this show is to remind us of the power of the collective,” Nthabeleng said.

Given a chance to reply after everybody had their say, the celebrated lensman, Khumalo, said very little. He was more curious to take the guests around to talk about the photos.

“The role of black photographers has never been recognised. It is still not recognised. Struggling as we were, we had to buy our own cameras, while our white colleagues had cameras bought for them and they also had camera allowances. They never cared too much about taking photos in black communities, hence they don’t have many mzabalazo photos.”

Before declaring the exhibition open, Nkululeko said she loved the unity of the older generation of photographers. She told the audience: “One thing I love about the veterans is their unity. They are always supporting each other at events, even when they attend their colleagues’ funerals.”

One of the guests, artist and photographer, Xia Cweba, said she was really impressed by the images on display: “Sometimes we need to go deep into our trenches in order to know who we are. This is a real dig-up of the past.”

The occasion was graced by many aspiring photographers and art students. Among them were veteran photographers such as Peter Mogaki, Jacob Mawela and Fanie Mahuntsi.

Mogaki told The Telegram: “This is indeed a brilliant exhibition. It shows the professionalism of Bra Len. I am very impressed with what his kids have done by getting involved and taking his work to a higher level. I thank his kids for collecting his works, raising his name and keeping it relevant.”

Khumalo’s children are very much involved in keeping his name and work alive by hosting exhibitions in different parts of the country.

The exhibition venue is at 2 Helen Joseph Street, Newtown, Joburg.

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