/ 23 October 2009

Nu-school calls the shots

If Soweto-born Musa Nxumalo had not become a photographer, he could easily have played the synthesiser in a rock band. But, growing up with a grandfather who framed pictures on the side and who sometimes asked for help with glass, wood and nails, the fact that Nxu-malo chose photography doesn’t seem so strange after all.

He hasn’t totally abandoned his other love — part of Nxumalo’s work now involves documenting local rock band Organised Distortion.

Nxumalo is part of a new generation of photographers who are taking their lessons from the street and learning from alternative and pop cultures how to tell stories in pictures about everyday events.

He is showing his work at three venues: the Market Photo Workshop’s 20th birthday show, titled Short Change, at Johannesburg’s Museum Africa (as part of a competition launched by the City of Jo’burg’s arts directorate to award a top student a R130 000 bursary) and at Michael Stevenson’s Side Gallery in Cape Town, in a show aptly titled Alternative Kidz.

Alternative Kidz was put together as part of the Edward Ruiz Mentorship 2008 and is an alternative take on the lives of young people in the townships.

The curator’s message at the Stevenson reads: “Nxumalo re-presents and repositions not only mainstream South African youth culture, but also the ability of alternative counter-culture to react against social stereo-typing. In this context alternative culture is both culturally dissonant and individually liberating.”

Captured in black and white, his startling images show young people in a variety of settings far removed from what’s considered normal for young township folk.

One photograph shows two women: one black and dreadlocked, the other white, in an intimate pose on the dance floor.

But it is Nxumalo’s self portraiture that gives vital clues, for those who are looking, about who he is in relation to his ilk. In the image on our cover this week he depicts himself shirtless, nonchalantly holding a cigarette, an ashtray, his pants sagging, as he stares directly into the camera. It’s clear, from the image and from his budding occupation, that Nxumalo is exploring his outsider-insider photographer status.

Another of his images, shot in Yeoville, shows a part of a room with a mishmash of odds and ends that include a handmade wooden chair, skateboards and a reed basket; this odd mixture is imprisoned in a small part of the room.

The images show a reluctance to work within set parameters, a group of young people boring their way out of rigid paradigms — in a phrase: alternative kids.

The novelty of the project is Nxumalo’s insider view: gritty, unadorned and with a playful texture about it. He is documenting his peers and friends who are relaxed and open with him. We admire him — to paraphrase American scholar Susan Sontag’s insights about photographers — for revealing “hidden truths” about his peers. He has been able to catch them at that rare moment when intimacy, spontaneity and pose meet — they are prepared yet they are also wholly unprepared for that camera moment.

The 23-year-old, who lives with his aunt and uncle in Soweto, says he’s part of that new generation “exploring other cultures and breaking stereotypes”, naturally appropriating the symbols of other worlds. Small wonder he can say there’s no contradiction in being both “Zulu and urban”.

In his series Nxumalo shows us “the other side of the youth in the township”. His interest is not in the prim and proper Amakipkip generation, dressed in their dazzling colours, oversized goggles and “smartie” attitude. Even though he “loves colour”, the exhibition at Michael Stevenson is in black and white, bordering on a trashy aesthetic that in a different era was suggestive of anarchism and subversion of the mainstream.

Nxumalo’s contemporaries — students of the Market Photo Workshop — have contributed to a group show, entitled Borders, at the Goethe on Main Gallery in Jo’burg city’s trendy refurb Arts on Main. Borders showcases the talents and visions of seven new photographers: Samantha Simons, the Mail & Guardian’s Delwyn Verasamy, Puxley Makgato, Tracy Edser, Siphokazi Mdiniso, Simangele Kalisa and Dennis Ramashiga.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 1989 changed the course of Germany and Europe. This historic event — and the issue of the divisions apparent in South African society — is commemorated in the Borders exhibition.

It focuses on seven locations, six in Gauteng and one in the previous homeland of KwaNdebele. Photographer Thabiso Sekgala has, in fact, called his series Homeland, focusing on the ghost towns, dying locations and despairing peoples of places that were constructed in the apartheid imagination.

The open landscapes of the former homelands are of great interest to Soweto-born Sekgala. Travelling between Soweto and KwaNdebele for his project, Sekgala realised that some of the structures he always saw stood “empty and deserted”.

Shot in colour and exploring vast spatial landscapes, some of his images capture tenements that belong to another era, structures long abandoned, and the decaying presence of which point to the walls of the past that are still coming down.

Tracy Edser’s series, Baragwanath, shot in the psychiatric ward of Soweto’s most famous hospital, explores spaces that confine those considered insane, the borders created by the “sane” to keep out the “insane”.

Shot in black and white and penetrated by very little light, the photographs are dominated by walls or barriers. The subjects are solitary, blurred or obscured, perhaps gesturing at the anonymous existences they lead.

In the commentary accompanying the images Edser (recipient of the 2008 Tierney Fellowship at the Market Photo Workshop) says that the “conditions in which psych patients exist in Baragwanath recall the dehumanisation of apartheid systems. The stigmatisation is tangible in the divisions placed between sane and mentally ill, safe and dangerous, ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Samantha Simons’s series, Altered States, examines the shift that Wendy houses have undergone. In a commentary accompanying her photos she says that when she was growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s the structures were to be found in back gardens where they were used as playhouses or tool sheds.

The fall of the wall of apartheid has seen the structures cast anew. Now they are “on the pavement in front of high-walled properties. Their role has changed too: from children’s playhouses to security guard houses.”

Her photographs play with the concept of space, open and constricted. You can’t miss the loneliness of the Wendy houses (called Zozos by some), especially against the background of larger, more opulent properties. Although small and seemingly insignificant, the presence of the Wendy houses is insistent and forlorn. “It aims to serve as an inventory of security-guard houses that now puncture the landscape, creating a divide of us and them, the well off and the threat of violence and crime,” she says.

This echoes the statement by the curator of the exhibition that although “the Berlin Wall had been erected by the state, the citizens of South Africa’s big cities build their walls in an attempt to insulate themselves from real and perceived danger. Here the walls are not imposed by political will, but reflect the way in which people construct and maintain isolation from one other.”

Other collections on show deal with movement within the city, the mundane details of daily life and the construction of new living spaces (RDP houses) alongside established township houses.

It has been proposed that the series of events to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall will culminate in the destruction of a part of the wall that surrounds the Goethe-Institut in Parkwood, to orchestral accompaniment.

Alternative Kidz runs at Michael Stevenson in Cape Town until November 21. Borders shows at Goethe on Main in Johannesburg until November 6. Short Change is on at the Market Photo Gallery in Johannesburg until November 8