“[I]mage is important as a teaching tool—as a way of creating judgment, creating peace, or educating people....”
As Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe walked in downtown Johannesburg in March 1977, she saw a white woman and a Black man approaching one another from opposite directions on the same sidewalk, about to cross each other’s paths in front of a church. An American photographer who had trained with the street photographers Garry Winogrand and Tod Papageorge, Moutoussamy-Ashe grabbed her Leica M4. The resulting image expresses this expediency but also catches the eeriness of life in a segregated apartheid state, wracked with racism. The image’s frame and perspective similarly crystallize the racial tensions of South Africa at the time, while documenting a type of encounter that must have occurred there pervasively and constantly.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, Moutoussamy-Ashe had already encountered systematized and institutionalized racism, and she has recalled that Johannesburg was even more imbued with tension, oppression, ethnic division, suspicion, and fear. These conditions are reflected in the figures’ cautious and distrustful expressions as they look toward her camera, as if questioning her right to capture the scene. The blurriness of the faces against the church’s crisp architecture emphasizes these sentiments, metaphorically challenging widespread Christian values in relation to the country’s stark racism. As an African American woman photographer, Moutoussamy-Ashe directly experienced the anxieties of apartheid when policemen and civilians accosted her to demand her reasons for photographing.
The uncanniness of Black Man, White Woman, Johannesburg, South Africa contributes to a visual narrative of apartheid that also includes photographs by Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, and Peter Magubane. Much of this archive records the oppression of South African Blacks through decrepit living conditions, overcrowded transportation, police violence and murder without repercussions, and racial hierarchies enforced by the state. In that place and time, the experience of circulating in public space as a Black person was traumatic in and of itself, a condition that Moutoussamy-Ashe’s photograph articulates. It intensifies that depiction through its formal motifs, including the play of light and shadow that accentuates the figures’ gazes, the camera’s proximity to the subjects’ faces, and the ironic inclusion of the church’s grand entrance, which sets sharp geometric contours around the figures’ heads, crowded at the bottom of the frame. Moutoussamy-Ashe’s desire to record such a moment of Black history responds to the marginalization of those narratives in the history of photography.
According to Moutoussamy-Ashe, her experience in South Africa has inflected her projects in the United States, informing her thinking and work. It has encouraged her in focusing on the contemporary experience of Blackness through humanist street photography. This approach to image-making, which emerged in the 1930s and ’40s among artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, expresses a concern with everyday life and marginalized people and foregrounds a sense of emotion and instantaneity, qualities shared by Moutoussamy-Ashe’s photograph of a contentious yet everyday encounter in 1970s Johannesburg. Challenging the punitively reductive definitions of Black identity imposed in apartheid South Africa and beyond, Moutoussamy-Ashe’s image records feelings of vulnerability and strength, fear and courage, to move toward an active, Pan-African self-definition.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Note: Opening quote is from Moutoussamy-Ashe, Jeanne, and Kalia Brooks, “Oral History Project: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.” BOMB magazine, September 11, 2014. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/jeanne-moutoussamy-ashe/.
Abigail Lapin Dardashti, independent scholar