Sunday evenings in the 1960s and 1970s for members of the Kamoinge workshop were synonymous with laughter, wine and conversation about art and life and their struggles for professional opportunities to show their work and earn a living. . The encounters, which took place in artists’ salons or studios, also frequently involved tears. Their criticisms of each other’s work could be ruthless.
It was a criticism born out of respect. The brutal honesty resulting from too high an opinion of a colleague to water down an opinion of his work.
Brutal judging, along with compassionate mentorship, rigorous technical coaching, and tireless advocacy for each member’s work, resulted in an incredibly beautiful and in-depth picture of a critical period in American history. seen through a perspective overlooked by the mass media. The results speak for themselves in the presentation by the Cincinnati Art Museum of “Working together: the photographers of the Kamoinge studio.
This exhibition chronicles the formative years of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of black photographers founded in New York in 1963, through approximately 150 photographs dating mainly from the 1960s and 1970s taken by the first 14 members of the group.
“They all contributed something,” Nathaniel M. Stein, curator of photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, told Forbes.com. “Some of them came with very strong interests in film and would bring that to the discussion. Some of them would spend a lot of time at exhibits around New York and bring that into the discussion. A lot of them they were really engaged in this emerging moment of the black arts movement, learning about African history, literature or contemporary politics and social issues.
Remarkably, the Kamoinge Workshop is America’s oldest artistic collective. While the group’s activities dwindled during the 1980s, they were resurrected during the 1990s and continue to this day with over 30 active members. Nine of the original members are still alive.
It’s also notable that “Working Together” is the group’s first major museum retrospective. Important presentations of their work have already taken place at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the International Photography Center in New York, but their contribution has been overlooked by the traditional gatekeepers of white art and photography.
For decades, whatever attention the artists of the Kamoinge workshop have found, they have created themselves.
“They were very skilled and interested in creating opportunities for each other,” Stein explains. “They opened a gallery to show the work. They were instrumental in creating a publication called “Black Photographer’s Annual”, which created a platform for black photographers to publish their work and for other black photographers to be able to see it and understand that it there are fine art photographs by black photographers that exist outside of maybe the one or two or three takers that you would see published in ‘Life’ or some magazine like that.
As with the rest of the art world and most of the country in general at the time, doors were not open to black photographers at the time. In addition to the photographs, “Working Together” includes an overview of the collective’s other achievements during this period, including rare documentation of exhibitions, portfolios and publications. Documents that the members of Kamoinge made sure to keep.
“A very important part of what’s happening here with their work was working in recognition and against a condition where they weren’t shown, they weren’t collected by the institutions where the narratives of photography were shaped,” Stein noted. “They were seen, they were exhibited and they were also very consciously creating and keeping their own records of this history because they were trying to write the story, to get the word out about what they were doing, to write the alternative history which historians did not write.
Hidden in plain sight, so to speak. Where historians have sniffed the Kamoinge studio, thankfully many of today’s leading black photographers such as Carrie Mae Weems and Daoud Bey did not and their works bear the influence of this.
All for one
The group takes its name from the Gikuyu language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya. Meaning “a group of people acting or working together”, the word Kamoinge reflects a central commitment to community, collective action, self-advocacy and a global perspective.
“They were all already involved in photography in different ways, but this group became the medium through which they all empowered, grew, learned, created opportunities and nurtured each other’s growth,” said Stein.
Recurring themes in their work include a genuine insider’s relationship with the community, a compulsion to portray black urban life in New York with a sensitivity and empathy utterly lacking in popular media of the time. Visitors will not see the typical images of riots, handcuffs, victimization, homelessness and drug use that flooded American television, newspapers and mass media during the second half of the 20and century and has come to define African-American communities for a majority of Americans who have never set foot there.
Atelier Kamoinge photographers have focused their efforts on children. The roles of women. black masculinity. The civil rights movement. Their link with the African Diaspora.
Tender pictures. Wonderful. Worthy.
“While a lot of this work has documentary aspects – there’s definitely an impulse to react to the times and show some of the things that are happening – it’s not documentary photography,” says Stein. . “A lot of what’s happening here is really about symbolism and how you represent this important social moment and this movement through photographs that are clearly works of art and not ‘just’ documentary photographs .”
The Atelier Kamoinge soundtrack was jazz.
“They were all obsessed with jazz,” Stein said. “A lot of them would tell you that even though they’re all photographers, the most important art form is jazz. It is not only a question of representing musicians, it is a sensitivity that animates and permeates all their photographic practice.
Jazz enlivened the Sunday gatherings. Look closely to find its influence in the images.
“The sensibility, that kind of moment of improvisation, the kind of counter-punctual syncopated rhythm… speaks to the way they see the world and the way they walk through it and photograph it – they would even explain it as akin to to jazz,” Stein said. “It’s not just a mental soundtrack, but a way of occupying the world and a way of working with the camera.”
“Working Together” toured the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York ahead of its Cincinnati showing which will run through May 15. Tour ends at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles July 19-October 9, 2022.
In Cincinnati, “Working Together” teams up with “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History,” featuring 60 of Driskell’s vibrant paintings, prints, drawings and collages, delivering the strongest punch of special exhibitions presented by any American art museum this spring. “Icons of Nature and History” has already been reviewed by Forbes.com.