Per the South African Journal of Photography Ernest Cole, South Africa’s first black photojournalist was born as Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole. He started out his photography career as a studio assistant to a Chinese photographer; it took off when he asked Jurgen Schadeberg for a job at Drum magazine. It was while taking a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography that the staff there encouraged/helped him to start taking pictures of life under apartheid in South Africa. By tricking the government to reclassify him as a colored (enabled by the name change to “Cole”) he was able to get access to places other blacks would not have had. As a colored he was also able to sneak his images out of South Africa, that were made into the book “House of Bondage”. He never returned to South Africa, dying in exile and isolation in New York in 1990 a week after Nelson Mandela’s release.
David Campbell: The New Visual Stories of Africa starts with the “single story” theme that Chimamanda Adichie struck in her seminal TED talk and takes image makers to task on their dualistic portrayal of Africans as good or bad, primitive or modern. This viewpoint evidently has not progressed much from that espoused in the early days of colonization where it was important for image makers to show Africans as inferior to Westerners so as to justify colonial/missionary forays into the continent.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Greg Constantine: Slum Warriors: Kenya’s Nubians. Kibera’s 100,000 strong Nubian community has lived there for over 100 years on land give them as compensation for fighting in the Kings African Rifles. “Nubian” is not officially recognized as a Kenyan tribe, so unless they are “vetted” at age of 18 to get Kenyan ID cards they become essentially stateless.
PHOTOGRAPHY:: Zwelethu Mthethwa: Inner Visions. Studio Museum in (the sweet village of) Harlem brings together a number of Mthethwa’s large scale images. Go see.
Zwelethu Mthethwa: Inner Views brings together three series by South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa (b. 1960). “Interiors” and “Empty Beds” document the domestic lives of migrant workers around Johannesburg, South Africa, while “Common Ground” focuses on the shared experience of natural disasters in urban areas, featuring houses in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, after wildfires.
See Also: Talk between Mthethwa and Okuwi Enwezor last year at Aperture gallery at the launch of Mthethwa’s monograph.
The Bicycle Portraits project was initiated by Stan Engelbrecht (Cape Town, South Africa) and Nic Grobler (Johannesburg, South Africa) early in 2010. Whenever they can, together or separately, they’re on the lookout for fellow commuters, and people who use bicycles as part of their everyday work, to meet and photograph. They’re finding out who rides bicycles, why they ride bicycles, if and why they love their bicycles, and of course why so few South Africans choose bicycles as a transport option.
The two photographers (bike enthusiasts from Cape Town) are using the startup Kickstarter (creative project funding platform) to raise funds to make their project into a hardcover book.
The swenkas are a small group of Zulu working men which formed in South Africa following the abolishment of Apartheid.
These well-dressed men are proud and considered to serve as an inspiration to others. On Saturday nights, these men leave their work clothes behind and don highly fashionable quality suits to impress a judge, who is a randomly picked. Traditionally, the prize for the most stylish suit is cash, but on special occasions such as Christmas, the winner may receive a goat or a cow. This traditional fashion show still happens today, but it is unclear as to precisely when it was instigated. The men follow certain set values of Swanking, such as physical cleanliness, sobriety and above all self-respect.
It is not clear what the precise roots of the swenka culture are. There is the acapella Iscathamiya music, where the performers, inspired by African-American ragtime/jazz fashions took a sense of formality and elegance. Also like migrants everywhere else the workers needed to buy swanky outfits for their return home to show those they had left behind that they had made it in the big city, regardless of what the daily reality was (is) of life in the mines, the construction sites, and white homes where they worked. Regular competition seems to have raised it all into an art form and a subculture.
The three video clips below highlight the various threads that make up Swenka.
Mini-feature on the Zulu ISICATHAMIYA choir competitions in Johannesburg
“artsworld” feature on Iscathamiya choral and Swenka fashion competitions in Johannesburg
Trailer for 2004 documentary “The Swenkas” by Danish director Jeppe Ronde. Synopsis here
See also: Vice magazine: Swanky Swenkas Snip from article from Adolphus Mbuyisa on swenking:
I am one of the organizers of the Joburg swenkas. I don’t know how many suits I own, maybe 20 or 30. If I see a suit I like, I simply must have it. I also have lots of shoes, ties, and shirts. It is important for everything to match if you want to win a competition.
I live in a room in Soweto. My family is very supportive of me and my clothes. They don’t mind that I spend so much money on suits—they are proud of me and they like it when I look smart.
Screen shot from designer Paul Smith’s web site
Speaking of Swankiness, See Also: Underscoring the power of the imagination in subcultures like the Swenkas and sapeurs, fashion designer Paul Smith has a new fashion line for spring/summer 2010 called “Mainline” influenced by Congo Brazzaville’s sapeurs:
See Also: Through all this I can’t help but think of Hugh Masekela’s song “Coal Train” (aka “Stimela”) about a train carrying men from the hinterlands of southern Africa (all of Africa these days?) who uproot themselves from their homes, lands and loves in the pursuit of dreams of wealth and comfort. The dreams that crash into the reality of migrant life and that are rekindled in Swenka fashion and Iscathamiya music/performance.
In the 1970s and 1980s, so many promises were made to Liberia and by Liberians. All of them would be broken over the next two decades. As part of a long term project I’m beginning, I plan to document the spaces of these broken promises.
See also: Guy Tillim: Jo’burg Landmark image series from 2005. From Tillim’s artist statement:
The decay of Jo’burg’s centre can be ascribed to many factors but perhaps none more so than the absence of Body Corporates. These had become relics of a more genteel era; the communal responsibilities that are contentious in even the most well-heeled blocks were not marked out. Windows were broken and not repaired. Lifts froze and their shafts became tips.
The relationship between tenants and owners or their agents deteriorated with disputes over the state of the buildings, and in some cases resulted in unpaid rents and dues. The buildings started looking like fire hazards, and the City Council began closing on them for unpaid utilities.
See also: Zarina Bhimji: Out of Blue: Zarina Bhimji (Uganda/UK) was a member of the Asian community kicked out of UG in the 70’s; she returned there a few years ago and among other things documented (film/photos) the decay in the public and private buildings that had been abandoned by fleeing Asians during the nightmare that was the Idi Amin years. Some of her images were featured in the landmark International Center of Photography photo exhibition “Snap Judgments“.
ARCHITECTURE: Tanzanian-born star-chitect David Adjaye has a show at London’s Design Museum. Urban Africa contains over 2000 images that he has taken over the last 10 years of the civic/commercial/residential architecture of all of Africa’s 53 capital cities. In a BBC interview he talks about how people have strong visual connections to the wild landscapes of the continent, but are a little baffled when told about about how cosmopolitan the cities are. The show’s goal is to redress this situation.
I wish I could go see this show. These days when I go back to Nairobi, I see the architecture in a different way. There are many old buildings that intrigue me (designed to address a certain notion of africanness and local climate needs) and new ones that leave me aghast (designed to mimic some bland, uncreative notion of modernity).
PHOTOGRAPHY: Dimanche a Bamako by Aitken Jolly One of the legacies of Malick Sidibe’s work getting accepted by the elite art/culture crowd methinks is that it has encouraged fashion/editorial image makers to explore using African models, fabrics, etc. beyond the “safari, wild animals, raw nature” concepts that have previously dominated interpretations of Africa. This is a good thing.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Book Review: Malick Sidibe vs Dash Snow. On the occasion of the recent release of Malick Sidibe‘s latest book, art photography critique site Conscientious juxtaposes two things that should not go together. Jörg M. Colberg posits that art should transport/transform; it is the unalloyed joy and humanity in Sidibe’s images that are core of the images appeal. Conversely, Dash Snow’s VICE magazine-style party polaroids of the tortured/alienated artist NYC do not. Providence allowing, one day I will own this Malick Sidibe print.
PHOTOGRAPHY:Carnaval: Surreal Selves. In 1987 famed Brazilian documentary photographer Rogerio Reis took portraits of “counter-carnaval” participants on the back streets of Rio de Janeiro. What he found were people who for one day were trying to escape the social/cultural strictures they lived under the rest of the year. It makes me think of the lyrics of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “A Felicidade”.
A felicidade do pobre parece
A grande ilusão do carnaval
A gente trabalha o ano inteiro
Por um momento de sonho
Pra fazer a fantasia
De rei ou de pirata ou jardineira
Pra tudo se acabar na quarta feira
The happiness of a poor man is like
The grand illusion of Carnaval
People work the whole year long
For one moment’s dream
To play the part of
A king or a pirate or a gardener
And all of that is ended on [Ash] Wednesday