The Whitney Surveys the Important Work of Kamoinge Workshop Photographers

Photography, Exhibition Reviews

December 14, 2020

In the early 1960s, New York was the site of incredible initiatives aiming to omit the existing power structures in the art system, as well as in the society in general. During those years, the first African-American art group called the Spiral was formed, but also another relevant collective dedicated to photography called the Kamoinge Workshop.

To celebrate the spirit of friendship and solidarity, they have decided to use the word "Kamoinge" meaning "a group of people acting together" in the Gikuyu language of Kenya. These artists were focused on the status of photography as an independent art form suitable for depicting the Black communities in a different and non-exoticizing fashion, unlike the way they were most often represented in art, media, and popular culture of the time.

The Kamoinge activity was developed along with the civil rights movement, the Black Arts movement, and pan-Africanism, as the collective’s members use to meet weekly to share their work, as well as technical and professional tips and tricks, and philosophical standpoints.

To trace the history and relight their significance, especially in the context of the current racial debates in America, the Whitney Museum of American Art decided to organize the exhibition Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, which includes around 150 photographs by the early members of the Kamoinge Workshop.

Adger Cowans - Footsteps, 1960. Gelatin silver print, image: 8 1/4 × 13 5/16 in. (20.96 × 33.81 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Aldine S. Hartman Endowment Fund, 2018.201. © Adger Cowans

The Exhibition

The exhibition is focused on the achievements of fourteen members who initially formed the collective between 1963 and 1972: Adger Cowans, Louis Draper, Anthony Barboza, Daniel Dawson, Al Fennar, Ray Francis, Beuford Smith, Herb Robinson, Herman Howard, Jimmie Mannas, Herb Randall, Ming Smith, Shawn Walker, and Calvin Wilson, some of them living and working today. Each member of the Workshop nurtured their own aesthetic and independent photography career, but they were drawn together by the same perspective.

The exhibition is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) and was curated by Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, associate curator of modern and contemporary art, Carrie Springer, assistant curator, and Mia Matthias, curatorial assistant. In a brief statement, Springer nicely emphasized the importance of Kamoinge production:

It’s a privilege to present this exhibition in New York where the collective was founded, and where much of the artists’ influential, early work was created. Each artist had his or her own sensibility and independent career, but they shared a commitment to photography as an art form, and the exhibition demonstrates their insightful and inventive portrayal of the communities they saw and participated in. As Louis Draper said in an introductory statement to Kamoinge Workshop Portfolio No. 1, the Kamoinge artists' creative objectives reflect a concern for truth about the world, about the society and about themselves. The photographs of these artists are as significant to the history of photography as they are to the current moment. 

Shawn Walker - Easter Sunday, Harlem (125th Street), 1972. Gelatin silver print: sheet, 7 3/4 × 9 3/4 in. (19.7 × 24.8 cm); image, 6 1/4 × 8 1/2 in. (15.9 × 21.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Photography Committee, the Jack E. Chachkes Endowed Purchase Fund, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2020.61. © Shawn Walker

The Kamoinge Artists

The exhibition is organized thematically to show the development of these insightful depictions of Black Americans that were mostly absent from mainstream contemporary publications and art institutions.

On view is the way Kamoinge artists portrayed the everyday life of people of all ages within the urban landscape – people at work, rest, or travel.

Alongside ordinary people, these artists felt inspired by jazz, a genre that was based on the similar framework of improvisation, knowledge, and intuition, much as their own. Despite the fact that realistic representation came easy and at hand, the Kamonige artists did not avoid emphasizing abstract or surreal elements of streets, walls, and natural forms in their photographs.

Herb Robinson - Brother & Sister, 1973. Gelatin silver print: sheet, 11 1/16 × 14 1/16 in. (28.1 × 35.7 cm); image, 6 5/8 × 9 in. (16.7 × 22.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Photography Committee 2020.46. © Herb Robinson

The Kamoinge Workshop at The Whitney

To remain devoted to the notion of their name, and to extend the sense of community, some Kamoinge members traveled to African countries and other international locations with the significant populace of African diasporic communities that had been liberated from colonial rule.

A 300-page catalog accompanies the exhibition with numerous illustrations and scholarly essays that analyze different aspects of the Kamoinge workshop.

Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop will be on display in the Whitney Museum’s eighth floor Hurst Family Galleries until 28 March 2021.

Featured image: Beuford Smith - Two Bass Hit, Lower East Side, 1972. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 10 15/16 × 13 15/16 in. (27.78 × 35.4 cm), image: 9 3/8 × 13 1/2 in. (23.81 × 34.29 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2017.36. © Beuford Smith/Césaire. All images courtesy The Whitney.