Memories of a world in which three trips to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the same exhibit might happen in a mere 40 days now leave me divided, part incredulous at how ancient that luxury seems and part envy now that it’s gone.
What gobsmacks me now is not that I was moved and dazzled by the photographs I saw at the opening of the Kamoinge Workshop exhibit Jan. 30. It’s that I went back – not once but twice before March 11 when my sheltering began – to savor them again.
The good news is that once the museum can safely reopen, the exhibition, originally scheduled to close in June, has tentatively been extended through Oct. 3. In the meantime, you can get a full preview of the “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” exhibition online.
James Mannas was 10 years old when his father recognized his interest in photography and bought him a Brownie Hawkeye camera. Before long, Mannas was developing film in the family bathtub, but with 13 family members, he was only allowed to work between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., not easy for a kid.
When he was 17, Mannas moved to a Brooklyn flat on the third floor, which had a small attic he could use as a darkroom. He soon met Richmond native Louis Draper, also an aspiring black photographer in New York. Draper lived nearby on the second floor of a building where poet Langston Hughes lived on the third floor and the landlady on the first.
“Lou showed me how to develop and print on the floor of his apartment, with Langston watching and encouraging us,” Mannas recalls. “He had three trays – the developer, stop bath and fixer – and we were down there on our knees processing my photographs and printing them.” Once Mannas had a large enough body of work, he set out to apply for a government grant. But when Draper read through his application, he was blunt.
“Lou told me my writing sucked,” Mannas says with a laugh. “So Langston rewrote my application and I got the grant. $3,500 was a lot of money back then!”
Draper and Mannas were part of a remarkable collective of 15 black photographers in the ’60s and ’70s who called themselves the Kamoinge Workshop after the Kenyan word for “a group of people acting and working together.” The brilliance of their work and spirit is on display in “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop.”
“This exhibit is even more special than usual because its roots are with Louis Draper, a photographer who left Virginia because of segregation and oppression and wound up co-founding the Kamoinge Workshop,” explains the museum’s director, Alex Nyerges. The exhibition’s local roots were planted in 2015 when Draper’s sister donated his complete archive of more than 50,000 items to the museum.
Once she began digging into Draper’s archives, associate curator of modern and contemporary art Sarah Eckhardt was quick to recognize the historical, artistic and political significance of the workshop’s intent.
“The purpose of the Kamoinge Workshop was to tell their story as only they could,” she says. “If there’s any thesis to this exhibit it’s that any history of ’60s and ’70s photography is not complete without the Kamoinge Workshop.”
The exhibition is extensive – 180 pieces – and yet intimate at the same time, as exemplified by one of a little girl in Sunday finery coming down the steps of a church. Many photographs work in dialogue with each other, expressing similar subjects or impressions. Moments of time depicting life in Harlem abound with scenes set in the garment district, stoops, playgrounds and bodegas. Many in the collective had been to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington or witnessed Southern brutality to voting rights activity and sit-ins. Not surprisingly, seeing such volatile forces propelled many of the photographers to document the resistance by taking images of those left out of the national conversation such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis and street preacher Edward “Pork Chop” Davis.
The photographers also felt a kinship with the improvisational nature of jazz and documented such musicians as Miles Davis, Mahalia Jackson, John Coltrane and Sun Ra. And because decolonization in Africa was occurring at the same time as the U.S. battle for civil rights, many of them traveled to Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica, Senegal and Suriname to capture the African diaspora.
The early members of the Kamoinge Workshop maintained their independent photography careers, but paid dues to the organization and met weekly, usually on Sundays, to share their work with each other and participate in spirited discourse about ideas.
In Draper’s introduction to the workshop’s first portfolio, he stated that their creative objectives reflected a concern for truth about the world, society and themselves. He went on to sum up life in Harlem, writing poetically, “Hot breath streaming from black tenements, frustrated window panes reflecting the eyes of the sun, breathing musical songs of the living.”
For Mannas and the remaining members of the Kamoinge Workshop, there is enormous satisfaction in the group’s work finally getting its due in a major museum and curated in what he calls a truly beautiful way. Then there’s the exhibit’s planned next stop: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Mannas has some thoughts on that, too. “Other than Roy DeCarava getting some of his photographs in MOMA, New York had a choice in the ’60s to show our work, but they weren’t there for us. You folks in Richmond have set the benchmark for whatever happens for us going forward.”
You can view images online from “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” at vmfa.museum/collections/stories/louis-draper-and-kamoinge.