words by Hanna Girma
On view at the Virginia the exhibition “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” chronicles two decades of the African-American photographers group.
Now on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” celebrates a collective of Black photographers established in New York City in 1963. Kamoinge comes from Gikuyu, the language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, meaning “a group of people acting and working together.” Group members had discovered the term in Facing Mount Kenya, a 1938 book by Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan prime minister who freed the nation from colonial rule, which surged in popularity among Black radicals at the time. In its unifying simplicity and links to the decolonization movements across Africa and the civil rights movement in the US, the word perfectly described the group’s ethos. This post-colonial sentiment of self-sustainability and radical unity joined the collective in strength to create a space for communal artistic growth, despite being overlooked by photographic institutions.
At its core, the group acted as an alternative forum for Black scholarship. Self-taught and self-governing, they established a unifying vernacular to work through their individual practices. While the photographs differ stylistically, they reflect shared visual aesthetics and social concerns, together documenting the social discord of the 1960s and ‘70s. The images produced also give personal snapshots into the singular lives of each collective member—and in doing so, provide a lyrical glimpse of Black life in New York during the heart of the Black Arts Movement. In describing the collective’s mission, the group’s founder and a major focus of the exhibition, Louis Draper, said, “The Kamoinge Workshop represents fifteen Black photographers whose creative objects reflect a concern for truth about the world, about the society and about themselves…Hot breath streaming from Black tenements, frustrated window panes reflecting the eyes of the sun, breathing musical songs of living.”
The power of this group came from learning and creating within their community. The tenements immortalized in the Kamoinge images had been photographed countless times before—but always through the lens of outside spectators. While Saidya Hartman’s 2019 book Wayward Lives pieces together images from a different period, that of the early twentieth century, it chronicles this sentiment of white anthropological fascination with Black life that was pervasive during the time of the Kamoinge Workshop and persists today: “The photographs coerced the Black poor into a visibility as a condition of policing and charity, making those bound to appear suffer the burden of representation.”
This fetishization of Blackness, Black poverty, and Black death is subverted by the self-representation that the collective championed. While these tropes at times appear, what prevails is the Black mundane, the everyday lives of people depicted with prestige and beauty: not just images of Betty Shabazz at Malcolm X’s funeral, but of women resting in doorways and seated at dinner tables in positions of power and repose; glimpses of children playing, and of Black men crying, singing, even flying. These photographs contain glorious reflections of the communities the group inhabited, but also stunning representations of self-reflection and growth through an array of early selfies and portraits of one another. They showcase the communal spirit, but also a sharp skill and genuine care that was bred though radical love, a strong work ethic and rigorous critique.
When considering other Black radical groups of the time, like the Black Panther Party, a tradition of vehement self-reliance prevailed in the face of white supremacy. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney explore these self-organized ensembles of social life and learning that occur everyday in Black life in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013): “A couple people seem to be reticent about the term ‘study,’ but is there a way to be in the undercommons that isn’t intellectual? Is there a way of being intellectual that isn’t social? … The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities was already there. … That recognition allows you to access a whole, varied, alternative history of thought.” Radical Black education has always existed, in that we have continuously taught each other and ourselves through non-canonical methods that are then cannibalized by the institutions which initially rejected the format. It is this institutional rejection that led the undercommons of the Kamoinge Workshop to emerge as an epicenter for Black learning, critical dialogue, communal healing. Many of the members used the words “college” or “university” to describe the collective’s seminar-style format. A space for scholarship, presentation, display and critique, Kamoinge was created to support creative output but became a family where fruitful productive confrontation was encouraged.
It may seem then unfitting that this collective, which was born from the lack of recognition it received from mainstream cultural outlets, is now the focus of a major traveling exhibition at museums who would not show their work to begin with. But alas, this is the cyclical cultural dilemma that institutions grappling with histories of authoritarianism must contend with. This exhibition is important, in that it accesses the “alternative history of thought” Moten and Harney promote: the Sunday meetings that ran into the night; the group organized shows in the Kamoinge Harlem gallery; the self-published Black Photographers Annual—all created when most mainstream outlets did not provide opportunities for Black photographers. The collective was a force during a critical era of Black production—not just by documenting revolts against the system, but by developing a system of their own.