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Kamoinge Workshop Photographers Finally Receiving Nationwide Museum Recognition

Sunday evenings throughout the 1960s and 70s for members of the Kamoinge Workshop meant laughter and wine and conversation about art and life and their struggles securing professional opportunities to show their work and earn a living. The get togethers, which took place in the artists’ living rooms or studios, also frequently involved tears. Their criticisms of each other’s work could be merciless.

It was criticism born from respect. The brutal honesty resulting from thinking too highly of a colleague to sugarcoat an opinion of their work.

The brutal judgments, given alongside compassionate mentoring, rigorous technical coaching and tireless advocacy for every one of the members’ work, resulted in a stunningly beautiful and thorough picture of a critical period in American history as seen through a perspective neglected by mass media. The results speak for themselves during the Cincinnati Art Museum’s presentation of “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop.”

This exhibition chronicles the formative years of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers founded in New York in 1963, through roughly 150 photographs dating primarily from the 1960s and 70s taken by the group’s 14 early members.

“They all brought something,” Nathaniel M. Stein, Cincinnati Art Museum Curator of Photography, told Forbes.com. “Some of them came in with really strong interests in film and would bring that to the discussion. Some of them were spending lots of time at exhibitions around New York and would bring that into the discussion. A lot of them were really engaged with this moment of the emerging Black Arts Movement, educating themselves about history, African literature or contemporary politics and social issues.”

breaking through

Remarkably, the Kamoinge Workshop stands as the longest running arts collective in America. While the group’s activities diminished during the 1980s, they were resurrected during the 90s and continue through today with more than 30 active members. Nine of the early members are still living.

Additionally remarkable is that “Working Together” is the group’s first major museum retrospective. Important presentations of their work have been previously held at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the International Photography Center in New York, but their contribution has been overlooked by traditional, academic–white–art and photography gatekeepers.

For decades, what attention the Kamoinge Workshop artists found, they created themselves.

“They were very deft and interested in making opportunities for one another,” Stein explains. “They opened a gallery to show the work. They were instrumental in the creation of a publication called the ‘Black Photographer’s Annual’ which made a platform for Black photographers to get their work out and for other Black photographers to be able to see it and understand that there is art photography by Black photographers that exists outside of maybe the one or two or three takers that one would see getting published in ‘Life’ or magazine like that.”

As with the rest of the art world and most of the country generally during the period, doors were not open to Black photographers at the time. In addition to photographs, “Working Together” includes an overview of the collective’s other achievements during this period including rare documentation of exhibitions, portfolios and publications. Documents Kamoinge members made sure to keep.

“A very important part of what is going on here with their work was working in the acknowledgment and against a condition where they were not being shown, they weren’t being collected by the institutions where the narratives of photography were being shaped,” Stein said. “They were seen, they were exhibited and they were also very consciously creating and saving their own archives about this history because they were trying to write the history, make it possible for what they were doing to be known, to write the alternative history that the historians weren’t writing.”

Hidden in plain sight, so to speak. Where historians whiffed on the Kamoinge Workshop, fortunately, many of today’s leading Black photographers such as Carrie Mae Weems and Dawoud Bey did not and their works bear the influence.

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 captures a central commitment to community, collective action, self-representation and a global outlook.

“They were all in different ways involved in photography already, but this group became the way that they all empowered themselves and blossomed and learned and created opportunity and nurtured one another’s growth,” Stein said.

Themes running throughout their work include an authentic, insider’s relationship to community, a compulsion to represent Black, urban life in New York with a sensitivity and empathy utterly lacking in popular media of the day. Visitors won’t see the typical images of riots, handcuffs, victims of violence, homelessness and drug use which flooded American TV, newspapers and mass media during the later half of the 20th century and came to define African American communities for a majority of the Americans who never actually stepped foot in one.

Kamoinge Workshop photographers focused their efforts on children. The roles of women. Black masculinity. The Civil Rights movement. Their connection to the African diaspora.

Tend images. Beautiful. Dignified.

“Although a lot of this work does have documentary aspects-certainly there’s an impulse to respond to the times and show some of the things that are going on-it is not documentary photography,” Stein explains. “A lot of what’s going on here is really about symbolism and about how do you represent this important social moment and movement through photographs that are clearly artworks and that are not ‘simply’ documentary photographs.”

Jazz

The soundtrack of the Kamoinge Workshop was jazz.

“They were all obsessed with jazz,” Stein said. “They would largely tell you that although they’re all photographers, the most important artform is jazz. It is not just about depicting musicians, it is a sensibility that animates and pervades their entire photographic practice.”

Jazz backgrounded the Sunday gatherings. Look closely to find its influence in the pictures.

“The sensibility, this sort of improvisational moment, the kind of counter punctual syncopated rhythm… talks to their way of seeing the world and their way of moving through it and photographing–they would even explain it as akin to jazz,” Stein said. “That is not only a mental soundtrack, but a way of occupying the world and a way of working with the camera.”

“Working Together” visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York prior to its presentation in Cincinnati which will last through May 15. The tour concludes at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles July 19 through October 9, 2022.

In Cincinnati, “Working Together” combines with “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History,” featuring 60 of Driskell’s vibrant paintings, prints, drawings and collages, delivering the strongest one-two punch of special exhibitions presented by any American art museum this spring. “Icons of Nature and History” has been previously reviewed by Forbes.com.

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