The Cordoned Heart

South Africa: The Cordoned Heart

The photography project of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa.

South Africa: The Cordoned Heart is considered as one of the seminal photographic exhibitions and books of the 1980’s produced by the artist, activist Omar Badsha and a member of the Afrapix photographic collective.

The photographic project was crucial in the emergence of the growth of a new socially relevant documentary photography project in the country and in 1986, when the exhibition opened in New York at the height of the mass uprisings in South Africa, the exhibition contributed to the growing anti-apartheid lobby in their campaign to impose sanctions against the Apartheid regime.

The exhibition and book was a product of the photographic project, the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa headed by Badsha and comprised of photographic essays by twenty South African Photographers.

The Second Carnegie Commission on Poverty and Development in Southern Africa was launched in April 1982 by Professor Francis Wilson, then head of the Department of Economics and South African Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Badsha was invited to head the photographic project after he had raised the idea with Prof. Francis Wilson that the project should include photographers to work alongside researchers.

Badsha’s proposal was similar to the first Commission and the work done by the Farm Security Administration involving writers and photographers in documenting poverty in the USA, set up by President Roosevelt’s government in 1937 under his New Deal policies.

The Cordoned Heart (PDF)

South Africa: The Cordoned Heart: A short history of the photography project of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa.

- Read the book online

The significance of the project for Afrapix and photography in general was that it was initiated in the first quarter of 1982, alongside Badsha, Paul Weinberg and Lesley Lawson efforts to establish Afrapix, the anti-apartheid photographic collective. In addition it also coincided with Afrapix members playing key role in organised the photographic exhibition for the Botswana Culture, Resistance Conference and the establishment of the annual Staffrider photography exhibitions.

In April 1984, a conference held over two days at UCT was attended by over 300 hundred academics, artists, photographers and film makers. At this conference 300 research papers were presented and the opening of the exhibition “South Africa, The Cordoned Heart".

The exhibition comprised 36 photo essays totalling 380 photographs was held in the foyer of UCT's Leslie Building and it also formed part of a mini cultural festival which included a showing of films, music and dance performances.

At the end of June 1984 the exhibition was further edited down and was showed in community venues in a number of centres in South Africa. In October 1985, the American photographer Alex Harris and his partner Margaret Sartor, a book designer, arrived in South Africa to work with Badsha to prepare an exhibition for showing at the ICP and the launch of the book at the opening. 

Harris and Sartor travelled around the country meeting and interviewing the photographers who had participated in the exhibition. (see archive) and worked solidly for two months editing printing eight copies of the show which was now edited down to 70 images and designing the book.

On 4 May 1986, "South African The Cordoned Heart," opened at the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in New York, and the book was also launched at the opening of the exhibition.  Badsha was unable to attend the opening of the exhibition as the South African government denied him a passport to travel to New York.  His wife Nasima, daughter Farzanah and his colleague Paul Weinberg attended the opening at the show. A speech by Badsha was read out at the opening and Weinberg participated in a symposium, which was organised as part of the exhibition programme. The exhibition travelled extensively in the USA between 1986 – 1982. A copy of the exhibition was shown in the United Kingdom (UK) and another copy was sent to Germany. 

Badsha and Harris had discussed the idea of establishing a Centre for Documentary Photography at UCT, similar to the unit he headed at Duke University and in 1987, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the centre was established with Badsha as its head. 

Cornell Capa, the director of the International Centre for Photography, at the time said,”... the Cordoned Heart… brings us insiders’ truths that must be known as we struggle to understand tumultuous current events in South Africa and the complex and terrible history that impels them. Their photographs speak to the heart with a speed and wisdom beyond words.”

Despite the restrictions of movement, intimidation and violence, the photographers of South Africa in the Cordoned Heart (amongst others) continued to work, offering pieces of evidence which would reach the news and eventually the world. These witnessed accounts of the Apartheid State and the collective recordings of the day-to-day life offer not only as a memory, but proof to those who experienced it, as well as to those from afar who care about the world’s injustices. The images record the struggle for freedom and the photographers as resistance fighters.

The book,was edited by Badsha with text by Prof. Francis Wilson and a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The book was published by Gallery Press, owned by the photographer Paul Alberts, one of the photographers involved in the project. The title of the exhibition and book comes from a poem by the great South African poet Ingrid Jonker, “The Child that was shot at Langa.”

The photographers who took part were, Paul Alberts, Joseph Alphers, Michael Barry, Omar Badsha, Bee Berman, Michael Davies, David Goldblatt, Paul Konings, Lesley Lawson, Rashid Lombard, Chris Ledochowski, Jimi Matthews, Ben Maclennan, Gideon Mendel, Cedric Nunn, Myron Peters, Jeeva Rajgopaul, Wendy Schwegmann and Paul Weinberg. 

Last updated : 25-Jan-2018

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Apr-2017