Africa’s grand selfie Photographers turn the lens on themselves

Neighbourhood 4, from In-Glorious series. 2009
Neighbourhood 4, from In-Glorious series. 2009 | Photo: © Musa N. Nxumalo

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.

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.” 695x300_Peregrinate Exhibition2 © Julian Manjahi Peregrinate Exhibition2 © Julian Manjahi 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 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.

The night before the dinner, at the opening of the fair, I am watching the people watching the Dean Hutton portraits. Some are shocked and hurry away. 695x300_Peregrinate Exhibition © Julian Manjahi 695x300_Peregrinate Exhibition © Julian Manjahi Titled Dean’s Bed, the series is mostly nudes of friends of the artist formerly known as Nadine. A highly respected photojournalist in her past life, she has embarked on a proudly queer art career.

It is still highly unusual to see frank nudes in an African exhibition and 38-year-old Hutton is pushing the envelope. She unabashedly includes a self-portrait on the walls of the Room stand at the fair.

“Working, playing, with the participants to reveal, but not capture, ultimate expressions of self … a naked … bare self that holds agency.” That’s how Hutton describes her series.

Portraits are the new politics at the fair. And many are fantastical.

African artists projecting images of themselves as astronauts, models and rap stars.

Namsa Leuba (32) takes pride of place at the LagosPhoto booth. She says she plays with fashion to make her pictures pop like a glossy mag editorial – and critique how the female body is depicted in fashion media. A lurid portrait shows a flower arrangement in place of the model’s face.

It’s at the Lagos booth that another powerful set of seminude portraits gazes blankly and judgementally at the visitor. Jenevieve Aken is a 25-year-old model turned photographer.

Her self-portraits, called The Masked Woman, are just that – herself in a mask. She says they are created to challenge the perception of women as sex objects. She calls her persona a “super femme fatale” to test her freedom in society.

Says Ng’ok: “Definitely young Africans are turning the lens on themselves. The new photography is simultaneously many things.

“Documentary has become a personal affair. I’m not sure why this is happening now and not a decade ago. Maybe it’s because people have become more comfortable with themselves.”

Peregrinate was first shown at the FNB Joburg Art Fair 2014 and now runs at the Goethe- Institut at 119 Jan Smuts Avenue in Joburg from 1 to 19 September 2014.

The LagosPhoto Festival runs in Lagos from 25 October until 26 November.

This article was first published by Citypress #Trending Magazine and is republished here with kind permission.