Peter Collins: People Like Us

“’What do you come from Europe for? To make pictures you take back to England. But my people stay here! Living like this!’ He gestured violently toward a filthy gaunt old woman selling roasted mealies in the gutter, at the queues of lurching drinkers…” as Paul Hogarth packed away his paper, pens and pencils on a hot and dusty Johannesburg street corner he took the brunt of a young black man’s frustration of life in 1950s South Africa. It would set the tone for much of his journey across the continent and beyond wherever the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest was most acute, but Hogarth never shied from recording both extremes, in fact he reveled in it.

In 1958 Hogarth published his fourth book, People Like Us: Drawings of Southern Africa and Rhodesia, a follow-on from his travelogues to China, Poland and Greece in which his unique reportage drawings had, by then earned him a reputation for bringing a truthful, independent and thought-provoking view of countries and people relatively unknown to his western audience.

A member of the British Communist Party in the 1930s, he followed the exodus of European writers, artists and painters to join the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War delivering goods and recruits to the front line in decrepit uniforms with yet older rifles. His communist affiliations put pay to serving his country in World War Two and by 1947 he was charged with his first foreign outing as an artist to paint the building of a railway in eastern Bosnia. This was quickly followed by forays behind the Iron Curtain and a career changing trip from the Soviet Union into the heartland of Mao’s China.

His journey across Africa would draw many parallels with future commissions across South East Asia, the Carribean and the Middle East. His remarkable collaborations with Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell took him from the waterways of the Nile Delta and Mekong River to leper colonies in Zaire and the backstreets of Port-au-Prince where the legacy of Papa Doc’s tyrannical reign still cast its ugly shadow.

The stark contrast between rich and poor was never lost on Hogarth. His years spent living and teaching in the United States allowed him to highlight the uncomfortable truth about the world’s richest nation. From drawing the beauty and grandeur of the country’s colonial architecture in Boston, Washington and Philadelphia he would effortlessly contrast its millionaire owners with immigrant workers on New York’s Lower East Side: “Perhaps the most pathetic scene I saw occurred at the 9th Precinct Station where a terribly distraught Puerto Rican widow whose apartment had been broken into, had run to ask the protection of a solitary overworked station officer. ‘There’s no one here to protect you lady,’ he told her.”

Whilst America spearheaded the great advances in postwar manufacturing Hogarth witnessed an African people struggling to transition from an ingrained sense of culture and kinship with their land to a new world of industrialisation driven by the wealth and greed of the few. In 1956 he accompanied Doris Lessing as she returned to her native Rhodesia to write an exposé on apartheid and colonialism.

What followed was a stark account of life for local and migratory workers. Hogarth’s use of black ink throughout magnified the harsh reality of lives led hand to mouth. What his good friend John Berger would so eloquently write of he would mirror with the most deceptively simple drawings done in situ and often in the most challenging of circumstances.

In today’s world of a billion photoshopped Instagram images there can be no greater argument for championing Hogarth’s relevance and artistic resurrection. When, in 1957, he returned to London with his drawings his London gallery refused to exhibit them because of their “challenging content” whilst Lessing’s publishers reduced his work to tiny chapter headings. Unlike much of today’s media Hogarth depicted what he saw, for better or worse. His drawings, like the great reportage photographers of his era who shot in monochrome, show truth as well as compassion. When so much of what we see, read and hear is filtered to fit a corporate agenda where do we go to find that simple truth?

Hogarth would not be thwarted, he found sympathetic publishers unafraid to show a white dominated audience the maltreatment of their fellow, darker skinned man. He wrote at the time: “Men and women who were yesterday living in primitive society and who today have been propelled into often terrifying industrialism, do have faults as well as virtues. But whatever they are, they are neither the savages nor the ‘accursed of God’ that South African politicians would have us believe. They are in fact people like us.”


Hogarth epitomized cosmopolitanism; he embraced people of all backgrounds, colour and creed, a lover of fine food and wine he graced London’s best restaurants, toured Ireland’s toughest pubs and blazed Greene’s trail in the bars of Havana, Saigon, Argentina and Sierra Leone. Hogarth, always the gentleman outsider looking in, immersed himself in the history and architecture of the places he painted. His use of simply drawn figures going about their daily lives created living landscapes for his architectural pieces and that perception of simplicity masked his genius for self-restraint, a lesson for Instagrammers the world over. To understand Africa’s present and future we must understand its past and if ever a picture could paint a thousand words then surely Hogarth’s could.

I can think of no finer patriot for the bar at Cairo’s coolest Cosmopolitan Hotel.

 


Peter Collins is a lifelong wanderer, photographer and bibliophile. Also, creator of the retroculturati website for those with a lingering foot in the cultural past.