Two Posts for the Price of One: Apartheid Photography and Corn

by | Nov 20, 2010 | Arts and Culture, Food and Drink, Johannesburg, Johannesburg City Centre, Museums and Buildings | 0 comments

Part 1

The weather shifted while Joe and I were away. Instead of the endless string of sunny, dry days we had before, we’re yo-yo-ing erratically between cold/rainy and sunny/warm. It’s more humid. The koppies have turned green and new summer flowers are blooming.

This amazing cactus flower bloomed in our yard yesterday.

Also, it’s corn season. This has brought a new source of joy into my life — the mielie lady.

Corn is called maize in Africa. But everyone in South Africa calls it mielies (MEE-lees). One ear of corn is a mielie. Multiple ears of corn are mielies. Corn meal is mielie meal. You get the idea.

On Monday morning at around 9:00, I heard a woman wailing as she walked down the street. “It’s the mielie lady,” Joe said.

“Meeeee-leeees!” she called in a booming voice. It reverberated through the neighborhood. I was enchanted but too tired to investigate. (Jet lag.)

Yesterday I got another chance. “Meeee-leeeees! Veerrry niiiice!” I grabbed my wallet and camera and ran out.

She’d already passed our house and was heading up the road, pushing a metal shopping cart filled with mielies. I stopped to shoot a photo. She heard the shutter click and whirled around. I ran to catch up with her and breathlessly ordered three mealies (R6 each, or just under a dollar). She smiled at me.

The mielie lady traverses the streets of Melville from November to June. She’s been doing this every year since 1965.

With the mielies under my arm, I took some more photos and showed them to her. She laughed. “Ha ha! MEEE-leeees!”

Mielie lady.

The mielies look like white corn from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but larger. Lucky says he boils them with the husk on, but I decided to do it the same as back home — shuck, boil for five minutes, spread with butter, roll in salt and pepper, eat.

My first mielie.

It was nowhere near as sweet as the summer corn I’m used to. But it’s early in the season yet. I’ll try again in a couple of weeks.

Part 2

Joe and I went to the Johannesburg Art Gallery today. Joe was assigned to photograph an exhibition there by South African photographer Ernest Cole.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery, the largest gallery in sub-Saharan Africa, is in a historic building in the middle of downtown. It is surrounded, literally, by The Hood.

Outside the art gallery.

If you look through those trees on the left side of the previous frame, this is what you see. I was shocked by the abundance of garbage.

The museum’s parking lot is protected by a few police, but inside there is no security — no metal detectors, no guards, no cameras (at least as far as I could tell). Yet somehow it feels completely safe. Admission is free.

The exhibition was stunning. Ernest Cole was born in a black township near Pretoria in 1940. He spent years documenting apartheid in South Africa before going into exile so he could publish a book of his work, House of Bondage.  He never returned to South Africa died at the age of 49, a week after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. A rare set of his original prints are on display at the gallery until tomorrow, when they’ll embark on a worldwide tour.

Ernest Cole’s exhibition.

I could go on forever about the photographs — they’re brilliant, beautiful, tragic, violent, inspiring…insert adjective. Here’s a New York Times article about the exhibition if you want to learn more.

It wasn’t just the photos that moved me, but the whole atmosphere. It was peaceful and quiet. An elderly white woman whispered to her wide-eyed pre-teen granddaughter about what it was like to live here during apartheid. A young black man and his two small sons studied the photos quietly a few feet away.

The exhibition guest book.

I know this sounds idealistic. But standing in that museum, looking at those photos, I felt a lot of hope.

Joubert Park, just outside the museum. It’s beautiful but not safe to walk in.

Snapped through the window as we exited the museum parking lot.


Leave a Reply