Seeing ‘Black excellence’ in ‘Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop’ at Whitney Museum

Seeing ‘Black excellence’ in ‘Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop’ at Whitney Museum

“Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop” at the Whitney Museum of American Art follows a group of Black artists forming a community amidst the civil rights and Black Arts movements.

The exhibition, which opened at the museum Nov. 21, 2020, and is on view through March 28, focuses on the formative years of the Kamoinge Workshop. At its beginning in 1963, the mission of the group was to interpret Black America in a way mainstream media was not doing at the time. Through 140 photographs from 14 members — including Anthony Barboza, Adger Cowans, C. Daniel Dawson, Louis Draper, Al Fennar, Ray Francis, Herman Howard, Jimmie Mannas, Herb Randall, Herb Robinson, Beuford Smith, Ming Smith, Shawn Walker and Calvin Wilson — viewers see a raw and masterly portrait of day-to-day life for Black people in the country.

Ming Smith, America seen through Stars and Stripes, New York City, New York, printed ca. 1976. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 15 3/4 × 20 in. (40.01 × 50.8 cm), image: 12 1/2 × 18 1/2 in. (31.75 × 46.99 cm). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 2016.241. © Ming Smith
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 word ‘Kamoinge’ came from the Kikuyu dialect and translates into ‘a group acting together,’ or ‘a group working together,’” says Robinson, in a new video released by Whitney Museum on their YouTube channel.

In the video, recorded interviews with eight of nine living photographers celebrated in the exhibition give an inside look into how the workshop came together and why its cultivation at a pivotal juncture in American history was important.

“The photographs you saw of Black folks [at the time] were predominantly by white photographers,” Beuford Smith recalls.

Based in Harlem, the Black photographers of Kamoinge would meet regularly to show their work to one another and discuss the art form, sharing professional experience and friendship within the collective, according to the exhibition descriptions from the museum. They bonded over their love of jazz music and “the emerging African consciousness exploding within” them, as Draper said.

“The work was Black, so that made it political back then and it’s making it political now,” says Mannas in the video. “I was a Black photographer photographing Black life; I was in there, baby. And I’m in there now, where you’re putting your knee on people’s necks and whatnot unnecessarily, and killing them. It affects you, man. These are your people.”

 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
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

The artists of Kamoinge did not set out to take a journalistic snapshot of Black Americans amidst the ’60s and ’70s; however, much of their work either followed pivotal figures and moments in the civil rights movement, or dealt with similar themes and symbols within Black America at the heart of the photographs.

“The politics never went away. That’s our circumstance living in the United States,” Dawson says. “Being a civil rights photographer, that’s a label that’s external to our aspirations.”

Creating Kamoinge — “a community,” as Ming Smith says in the video — ultimately brought these artists’ voices together into a collective narrative of Black life that has lasted through history, now commemorated nearly 60 years later in the form of the Whitney’s exhibition.

“There was just this positive outlook of working together, because they ain’t paying attention to us,” Barboza says. “But we are working together to do what we feel strongly about. And that’s called Black excellence.”

“Working Together” is on view at the Whitney Museum through March 28. Learn more at the museum’s website.

Top Image: Detail of "Kamoinge Members," 1973, Anthony Barboza (b. 1944). Gelatin silver print: sheet, 13 15/16 × 11 1/16 in. (35.4 × 28.1 cm); image, 9 13/16 × 10 in. (24.9 × 25.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Jack E. Chachkes Endowed Purchase Fund 2020.55. © Anthony Barboza