The Cordoned Heart

South Africa: The Cordoned Heart is considered as one of the seminal photographic exhibitions and books of the 1980’s. The exhibition and book was a product of the photographic project of , the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa which was headed by Professor Francis Wilson head of SALDRU.

The photographic project was headed by the artist and activist Omar Badsha who Curated the exhibition South African The Cordoned Heart what became a seminal travelling exhibition, a book edited by Badsha and Francis Wilson and the establishment of a centre for documentary photography at UCT..

The Carnegie photographic project was one of the crucial developments in the emergence of a new social documentary photography movement in South Africa and in 1986, when the exhibition opened in New York at the height of the mass uprisings in South Africa, it contributed to the growing debate led by the anti-apartheid lobby in the US and in Europe to impose economic and cultural sanctions against the Apartheid regime.

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 of the Inquiry including photographers to work alongside academics in documenting developments in the country.

Badsha’s idea of photographers working alongside academics was mainly influenced by the work done by the Farm Security Administration involving writers and photographers in documenting poverty in the USA, which grew out of President Roosevelt’s government New Deal policies in 1937..

The project got underway in the first quarter of 1982, and it ran alongside Badsha’s involvement in the establishment of Afrapix Collective. Badsha,  and his colleagues Paul Weinberg and Lesley Lawson, also played the central role in organising of the photographic exhibition for the Botswana Culture, Resistance Conference, the establishment of the annual Staffrider photographic exhibitions and the exhibition and book Nichts Wird Uns Trennen by the German photographer Tim Besserer. Between 1981 when the idea of Afrapix was first mooted by Badsha and 1986 were crucial years in the emergence of  Afrapix and social / activists documentary movement in the 1980’s

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

The exhibition comprised 36 photo essays by 20 photographers and totalling 380 photographs was exhibited in the foyer of UCT's Leslie Building and it also formed part of a mini cultural festival of films, music and performances events as part of the Conference.  At the end of June 1984 Badsha further edited the exhibition down so that it could be showed in galleries and 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 and the publication of a book to be launched at the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in New York. Badsha, Harris and Sartor travelled around the country meeting and interviewing the photographers and the worked solidly for two months editing printing eight copies of the show which was now edited down to 70 images and formed the basis of the Book with text by Francis Wilson.

. 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.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the forward to the book.

On 4 May 1986, exhibition and book "South African The Cordoned Heart," exhibition was launched at the ICP gallery in New York.  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 exhibition and book launch and participated in a symposium on photography in South Africa. The exhibition travelled extensively in the USA between 1986 – 1982. A copy of the exhibition was sent to the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany. 

In the course of putting of the exhibition and book Badsha and Harris discussed the idea of establishing a Centre for Documentary Photography at UCT, similar to the unit Harris headed at Duke University. In 1987, with a three year grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the Centre was established with Badsha as its head. In 1991 the Centre closed because the University did very little to find any further funding.

List of photographers

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.

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

Last updated : 17-May-2018

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