This collective of Black photographers is finally getting the recognition they deserve.
The Gothamist reports that the Whitney Museum of Art will show a retrospective that will focus on the works from The Kamoinge Workshop. The collective first formed in the 1960s featured a group of Black photographers from New York City who would meet in kitchens, living rooms, and galleries to share and critique each other’s work. The workshop got its name from the Gikuyu language of Kenya, and “kamoinge” means “a group of people acting together.”
Speaking with the publication, Adger Cowans, one of the founders of the workshop and its current president, said it began as “bull sessions” where his fellow shooters would just be “sitting around, you know, eating chili and drinking wine, and talking about cameras and how to shoot.”
The retrospective, “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop,” will highlight a collection of the work from the 1960s when the group met regularly. The gallery will showcase the Kamoinge Workshop’s members photos by theme and will feature a variety of “street shot” photos that tell the story of Black life, whether it be crowds gathering at a Malcolm X rally and much more that will shine a light on photographers who were often ignored by the “art establishment” during those times.
While the Kamoinge Workshop and its members are finally getting the flowers they deserve, a few surviving founders are not jumping for joy at the idea of a retrospective about the group. Specifically becuase they felt they were ignored during the prime of their photography careers.
Adger Cowans didn’t hold back his feelings about the retrospective gallery, stating:
“On a personal level, you know . . . I’m not impressed. It should have happened a long time ago. We live in a very racist society, and I think they haven’t been fair with the African-Americans in terms of the art world.”
Another member, Beuford Smith, who joined Kamoinge in 1965, also detailed his time in the group explaining that critiques of his work were at times harsh, but that didn’t stop him from coming back. He also said this gallery’s announcement was “bittersweet” due to it arriving after the death of one of Kamoinge’s founders, Louis Draper.
“When it came time for me to show my photographs, they were highly dismissed. This is nothing,’ you know, ‘You gotta do better than this,’ and I was kinda hurt! But I said, no I gotta come back.”
Smith is also worried that framing it as a “retrospective” will cement their work in the past, making it seem that the group is no longer active, which is not the case. The Kamoinge Workshop is still very much an active space for contemporary Black photographers, and Cowans and other members are still out there snapping away.
“Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop” is currently showing at the Whitney through March 28.
Photo: suteishi / Getty