Thirty years after his death, penniless and alone in New York, photographer Ernest Cole’s archive of previously unseen work produced during his 24 years in exile is finally coming to light. His nephew Leslie Matlaisane, who heads the Cole family foundation, is still fighting an uphill battle with the Hasselblad Foundation for the return of more than 500 archival prints that are worth millions of rands. The foundation stubbornly refuses to let go of them.
This is the first of a two-part series on what happened to Cole after he left South Africa, how his archive appeared in a Swedish bank vault and why the Hasselblad Foundation refuses to let go of the last of his material in their possession.
In a corner of the Mamelodi cemetery is a grave bearing a tombstone dedicated to Morongwe Martha Kole, who died in 1999, and her son Ernest Levi Kole, who died on 18 February 1990 in New York, far from the country of his birth. Just a week previously, Nelson Mandela had walked out of prison a free man. Beneath the names, it simply reads “Cole – Photographer”. It was as Ernest Cole that Ernest Levi Kole was known throughout the world in the late 1960s, when he published House of Bondage, his seminal book of photographs documenting everyday life under apartheid.
He died penniless, depressed and riddled with cancer after leaving his homeland 24 years previously, not knowing that he would never see it again. His sister Catherine Hlatshwayo is 84 years old and still lives in the four-room house in Mamelodi that she has occupied for decades, not far from her brother’s final resting place.
On a steaming hot November day, sitting at her dining room table, Catherine recalls that on the day her younger brother left South Africa, she was too late to say goodbye properly. She arrived at what was then Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg only to see him already across the line separating those departing from those remaining, unable to be heard as he waved goodbye and made his way to an awaiting plane to Kenya.
Catherine would only speak to her brother a few more times, answering the occasional reverse charge calls he would make from whichever foreign country in which he found himself. He always assured her that he was doing okay, although he missed his family and his home and still believed that one day South Africa would become a democratic country for all who lived in it.
In February 1990, Catherine and her mother Martha received a call from New York from Cyril Khanyile, a South African doctor in exile who had known and assisted Cole in New York, who told them that Cole had pancreatic cancer and wanted to see them. With the help of the ANC, Catherine and her mother flew to New York, where they said a brief goodbye to him the day before he died.
Her memory is not what it once was, but Catherine still remembers her only trip to New York as a rushed, anxious and desperate attempt to see her brother one last time. She remembers walking the streets of Harlem – a neighbourhood she slyly compares to Pretoria’s Marabastad – with her mother on their way to the hospital in the bitter chill of a northern hemisphere winter.
Following his death, Cole was cremated and Catherine’s eyes well up as she remembers travelling back to South Africa with the urn carrying his ashes on the seat beside her. She still has a copy of the programme for the funeral service held at the Mamelodi Community Centre on 10 March 1990.
In the years after his death, the riddle of what had happened to Cole during his time in exile – and what photographs he had taken since the pictures that made him famous, which he had smuggled out of the country in 1966 – would perplex the photographic community. It would also confound his family, who have engaged in a long and frustrating battle to obtain the negatives of his work and several hundred archival prints of the original images from House of Bondage.
As a new trove of previously unseen work from his time in America begins to be released by Magnum Photos in collaboration with the Ernest Cole Foundation, shedding light on what Cole was turning his ever curious lens on during the tumultuous social changes taking place in 1960s America, there is still a small and infuriating matter of more than 500 archival prints held by Sweden’s Hasselblad Foundation, which is inexplicably and stubbornly refusing to return them to their rightful owners.
Cole’s nephew Leslie Matlaisane has a few memories of his uncle from childhood, when Cole would visit, “first on his Viper and then later he bought a Beetle and he used to take lots of pictures of us, but we’ve lost them now. He would often visit the late [musician] Philip Thabane because we lived in the same area of Mamelodi and he used to go with us to Philip’s place while they were rehearsing.”
It was not until after his uncle’s death that Matlaisane first saw the work that had made him briefly famous, in a bookshop in Cape Town. The apartheid government promptly banned House of Bondage upon its publication in 1967. Matlaisane recalls that in the years before Cole’s death, he “had several conversations with him but he never mentioned the book or anything about his archive”.
Cole phoned his nephew in 1981, asking him to come and visit him in the United States. But Matlaisane’s mother refused to let her son leave for America, saying she was worried that he, like her brother, would not come back. Over the years, Cole would send what money he could to his mother but these payments were sporadic.
In the early years of post-apartheid South Africa, Cole’s reputation rested on the work in House of Bondage. In 2001, the newly built Apartheid Museum used it as the basis for a section on daily life under apartheid, where it still stands today.
Cole’s childhood friend Geoff Mphakathi handled negotiations for the rights to his images in those days and Cole had handed over some vintage prints to him for safekeeping. Mphakathi died in 2004, but for a decade he had charmed the Cole family and foreign archives into believing he was the man to talk to about his old friend’s photographs.
Mphakathi helped piece together some of what happened to Cole in exile. This included the story of a grant from the Ford Foundation to produce two series on black life in the American South and the life of the “urban Negro”. But Mphakathi did not seem to know what happened to this work, only that Cole did not deliver it to the foundation and that as far as he knew, the negatives had been lost or where perhaps somewhere in Sweden, where Cole lived briefly in the 1970s.
The available work related to Cole’s time in South Africa and the pictures he had taken for his book. The family did not attempt to stop Mphakathi because as Matlaisane says, Cole’s friend “was a control freak.”
Before his death, Mphakathi had handed over control of the Cole archive to another friend of his, Otsile Ntsoane, who helped establish the Ernest Cole Award for Photography in 2011. It was during this time that Gunilla Knape curated a retrospective exhibition under the auspices of the Hasselblad Foundation, paying the foundation to use material it had in its possession. Ernest Cole: Photographer was shown in Europe, America and South Africa between 2010 and 2014.
The biographical essay that accompanied the exhibition gave insight into Cole, using interviews with friends and associates who had known and visited him while in exile. But Knape’s explanation of how the Hasselblad Foundation had come to possess the photographer’s archive was convoluted. She would later claim that she did not trust Ntsoane and so had kept what she knew about the Cole material held by the foundation and several Swedish institutions to herself.
Researcher and journalist James Sanders wrote in a 2017 article for the British Sunday Times newspaper: “The most significant questions unanswered in Ernest Cole: Photographer were: why did Cole leave Sweden abruptly in 1971? Why did Rune Hassner – a Swedish photographer and filmmaker – who encouraged Cole to visit Sweden in 1969 appear to break communication in the years that followed while holding on to Cole’s precious photographs? And why did Hassner not return Cole’s work to his family and heirs in South Africa following his death in 1990?”
Sanders also wrote that “Joseph Lelyveld, the managing editor of The New York Times, wrote to Cole’s London agent, John Hillelson, in 1991: ‘I’m pretty sure Ernest Cole left no will. I’m also sure he would have wanted any funds you have to go to his mother in Mamelodi … Ernest always led me to believe he had negatives in Sweden.’”
Having taken control of the Ernest Cole Foundation and turned it into a recognised legal entity, Matlaisane found himself at the forefront of his family’s struggle to gain access to his uncle’s archive. With the assistance of Knape, who had left the Hasselblad Foundation but whose research had led her to locate a number of Swedish museums and the foundation’s Cole holdings, Matlaisane began the process of bringing Cole’s archive home.
Finally, in 2016, Matlaisane became aware that several boxes of his uncle’s negatives were sitting in a bank vault in Sweden. After a long and complicated bureaucratic back and forth with Ulf Bergquist, the lawyer the Swedish government appointed to handle the transfer, Matlaisane received a plane ticket paid for by the Swedes in April 2017 for a trip to Stockholm. There, he was to meet representatives of Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB) bank.
“In January 2017, he [Bergquist] was ready to return the stuff, but it was too expensive to send here so he proposed that I come to Sweden and they would organise everything and I could bring it back with me. During that conversation, he mentioned material from Hasselblad and I was surprised because he had refused to get involved with them and I only knew about the stuff from the bank, SEB,” Matlaisane recalls. “I wanted to interview the bank officials and understand who had deposited the material and who had paid for it since 1972. I wanted to go to Hasselblad and interview them but he told me, ‘You’re not going to Gothenburg.’”
What Matlaisane would find in the vaults of SEB would change what we know about Cole and his work forever. But it would also turn out to be only the beginning of another, all too familiar story of corporate greed and a digging in of heels that is yet to be resolved.
Matlaisane had a list of what he expected to see in the bank vault and questions about who might have placed Cole’s work there for safekeeping. But when he arrived, there was no one to meet him. So he went to meet Berquist at a hotel instead, hoping for answers. What he found when he eventually gained access to the vault at SEB would exceed his expectations but, significantly, there was some key material missing.
Less than 36 hours later, Matlaisane was back on a plane to Johannesburg, like his aunt Catherine before him, carrying a precious piece of the Cole story strapped to the seat next to him. But he was still frustrated by questions that seemed to have no easy answers.