This November, the Whitney presents “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop,” a groundbreaking exhibition featuring over 150 photographs by fourteen early members of the Kamoinge Workshop, nine of whom are living and working today. In 1963 a group of Black photographers based in New York came together in the spirit of friendship and exchange and chose the name Kamoinge—meaning “a group of people acting together” in Gikuyu, the language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya—to reflect the essential ideal of the collective. Focusing on the first two decades of the collective (1963–1983), Working Together celebrates the Kamoinge Workshop’s important place in the history of photography and foregrounds the collective’s deep commitment to photography’s power and status as an independent art form.
Though each member of the Workshop developed a unique aesthetic approach and an independent photography career, they shared a perspective echoed in founding member Louis Draper’s statement: “we speak of our lives as only we can.” Highlighting the artists’ distinct visual voices as well as their collective concerns, Working Together primarily includes works from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as well as a selection of photographs unique to the Whitney’s presentation, many of which were recently acquired for the Whitney’s permanent collection. These works, as well as archival materials, foreground the achievements of fourteen early members who joined the collective between 1963 and 1972: Anthony Barboza, Adger Cowans, 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.
Nearly sixty years after the Workshop’s formation, their photography, self-organizing, commitment to community, and centering of Black experiences still resonate profoundly.“We are honored to present this powerful body of work that demonstrates both the aesthetic innovation and social engagement of these remarkable artists,” said Scott Rothkopf, Senior Deputy Director and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator.
Organized thematically, Working Together presents insightful images of Black Americans that were largely lacking from contemporary mainstream publications, galleries, and museums. Working Together highlights Kamoinge artists’ portrayal of the day-to-day life of people of all ages within the city and elsewhere at play, work, rest, or travel, and among these photographs are intimate depictions of friends and acquaintances in portraits and interior views that reflect quiet moments. Another source of inspiration and passion was music, particularly jazz, and Kamoinge members were acutely aware of key elements shared between that art form and their own, such as pacing, improvisation, and a mix of technical expertise, knowledge, and intuition. The artists often emphasized abstract or surreal elements of walls, streets, bodies and natural forms in their photographs, a practice explored in Working Together.