Africa’s GRAND SELFIE

The new African pho­tog­ra­phers are turn­ing the lens on them­selves, in­ves­ti­gat­ing their place in an ill so­ci­ety in­stead of just doc­u­ment­ing its ills. Charl Blig­naut speaks to six of the best

CityPress - - Front Page - 31 AU­GUST, 2014

It’s a freez­ing win­ter night in Mabo­neng, down­town Joburg, and we’re at a din­ner hosted by the Goethe-In­sti­tut to launch a new ex­hi­bi­tion, called Pere­gri­nate, by three young African pho­tog­ra­phers.

To pere­gri­nate – who even knows what that means with­out look­ing it up? – is to wan­der, to travel.

It’s a sig­nif­i­cant theme in the work of the pho­tog­ra­phers on show.

Where once cam­eras were trained on the lo­cal, on the doc­u­ment­ing of so­cial un­rest in our back yards, now they are go­ing global, tak­ing a big­ger pic­ture, of­ten of the self. Young African artists are trav­el­ling.

“There are new bat­tles to fight,” says 28-year-old Musa N Nxumalo from Em­deni in Soweto.

“A lot of peo­ple say my work looks Euro­pean. They have a very set idea of what is African,” says Mimi Cherono Ng’ok (31) from Nairobi, Kenya.

“Young artists are mov­ing away from the clichés of the con­ti­nent – the war and poverty,” agrees 32-year-old Thabiso Sek­gala, also from Soweto.

“There’s a new sense of con­fi­dence – and also a hap­pier side.”

Look­ing at their work, there is a very real sense of break­ing with the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion.

“South Africa is fa­mous for its doc­u­men­tary images,” says Ng’ok. “In Kenya, though, stu­dio por­trai­ture and street pho­tog­ra­phy is the tra­di­tion.”

Strolling past the work at the Joburg Art Fair, where Pere­gri­nate had its first show­ing, you see a si­mul­ta­ne­ous rein­ven­tion of the so­cial doc­u­ment and the portrait com­ing into fo­cus.

In Pere­gri­nate there’s a stark, al­most ab­stract photo of a mos­quito net knot­ted, hang­ing from the ceil­ing.

Next to it is a hos­pi­tal drip on a stand. We don’t see a per­son or a bed, just the hints of a con­di­tion. It’s my favourite work by Ng’ok.

“What I do is re­ally per­sonal. When you take away the peo­ple, you can imag­ine their sto­ries.” The viewer gets to de­cide who’s in the bed.

“You’ll never find a mos­quito net in Ber­lin. This could be Africa ... but it could also be Brazil.”

Ng’ok has taken pho­tos all over the world. “Like the din­ing room in my par­ents’ mid­dle class home in Nairobi.” Here, some­one has left the room. Who and why is up to you to de­cide.

On the cover of #Trend­ing is a photo taken by Nxumalo of a club kid stick­ing out her tongue.

In his se­ries, In/Glo­ri­ous (Home), he doc­u­mented his granny’s house where he grew up in Em­deni.

In In/Glo­ri­ous (Neigh­bour­hood), he trav­els the fringes of the city track­ing down ur­ban ex­plor­ers.

“As I wan­der around and try to dis­cover my iden­tity, I find peo­ple with dif­fer­ent styles who I ad­mire ... Ba­si­cally it’s al­ter­na­tive kids, who are get­ting out and dis­cov­er­ing the world in­stead of just hang­ing out on the same cor­ner in the town­ship.”

On the op­po­site end of the se­ries is his portrait of Kenny, a boy­hood friend. It could be a pos­i­tive work – Kenny fac­ing his future. But Nxumalo’s use of black and white dark­ens the tone. Even his party pic­tures have a sense of doom.

“This is not a feel-good project, not a happy state of be­ing. It’s a re­flec­tion of me more than of the par­ties.”

At first glance, Sek­gala’s portrait of a miner af­ter the Marikana shoot­ing is a typ­i­cal doc­u­men­tary photo from South Africa. But it isn’t. “I don’t use a doc­u­men­tary nar­ra­tive ... Doc­u­men­tary is a mode to make sense of my­self per­son­ally.”

In fact, the artist was in Marikana to shoot a se­ries on the Land Act. For him, it re­lated to his now-fa­mous se­ries, Home­land. He cap­tured land­scapes and por­traits in for­mer

Docu“men­tary has be­come a per­sonal af­fair

home­lands. Nxumalo grew up between Soweto and KwaNde­bele.

“Our gen­er­a­tion doesn’t talk about the his­tory of the home­lands. We talk about ’76.”

His work tries to place his life in­side a twisted his­tory – where the apartheid state saw blacks as visi­tors in the cities – their real homes out in the ru­ral ar­eas some­where. It’s still es­pe­cially true to­day of mine work­ers.

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