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Jabu Nadia Newman casts a new gaze

Anew generation of artists, photographers, filmmakers, theatre makers and performers has been brought to light and Jabu Nadia Newman is one of them.

She is the creator and director of The Foxy Five, an entertaining web series that spans four 15-minute episodes. Funny, challenging and often educational, the show tackles topical political issues that affect the daily lives of young black womxn in Cape Town.

The Foxy Five is also written by Newman, and the production features an all-womxn crew, something fairly unusual in local film production.

The web series has proved to be a fast success in its short existence, and has gone on to launch the careers of a number of its crew. Several Foxy Five alumni are working on feature films and in the advertising industry.

Despite the pressures of such a leadership role so early in her career, Newman appears at ease. Her vision for the future is resolute.

“I feel like I already know all the films that I’m going to make,” she says. “I’m just finding the right time to figure out which ones to write and focus on first.”

This is probably the strongest position for a young filmmaker in an industry that is notorious for compromising artistic vision. Thus far, creating on an independent basis works in her favour, because she is able to fashion professional environments that reflect the narratives she depicts.

Newman is also a seasoned photographer, working in between the genres of documentary and fashion photography. She has worked with a number of local stylists, models and designers, and has been featured in several lifestyle and fashion magazines such as the uber-hip i-D and local favourites NATAAL and Unlabelled.

With these editorial-style shoots, Newman hopes that an increased familiarity with many iterations of beauty will help to expand viewers’ perceptions.

“The more you see an image, the more you accept it. That can be bad when we’re looking at violence and desensitising ourselves. But when we think about showing different images of people, images of beauty and what it means to wear clothes, or what gendered clothes mean, that means we’re creating dialogue around those ideas.”

Newman’s first “fashion film”, Dirty Laundry, described by Jessica Hunkin of Between 10 and 5 as “intersectionality with a side of pop culture”, encapsulates many of the filmmaker’s aesthetic and stylistic markers.

Like The Foxy Five, Dirty Laundry has considered references to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s and the film has a distinctive emphasis on fashion and empowered dressing. Recalling the “black is beautiful” mantra popularised by the Black Panthers, the models and actors in Newman’s work embody confidence and boldness.

As is often stated, the personal is political and, for Newman, this extends to the aesthetic considerations of her work.

Working in fashion and film can allow participants to experiment with the boundaries of clothing and gender in ways that may be inaccessible or daunting in other contexts.

“It’s quite personal and it’s quite vulnerable,” says Newman. “It’s interesting to see their personalities play with the environment and the clothes. I’m interested in finding out more about breaking that gender binary and boundary and I’m interested in how other people are doing that.”

Since working on her web series, Newman’s broader professional circle has grown. She now has the opportunity to photograph projects spearheaded by others.

This experience, she said, has encouraged her to expand her own ideas around her aesthetic sensibilities: “It’s interesting and challenging. Now I need to photograph someone else’s idea of beauty in a way that I can still enjoy.”

The filmmaker sees her current position as a “growing period” in the early phases of her career and considers each project an opportunity to learn from the experience itself as well as from others.

Similarly, Newman sees an open future for The Foxy Five and, in time, would like others to write and direct the series: “I don’t think I can write these types of stories just from my point of view anymore because it’s very limiting.”

This demonstration of self-reflexivity is palpable throughout Newman’s repertoire, resulting in a sensitive gaze that creates space for others, both aesthetically and professionally.

Concerning her own projects, Newman intends to focus on narratives about her family and personal history.

When discussing the politics in her films, she hopes the conversation can develop to accommodate more subtle themes “looking within the politics of the everyday, of people’s feelings, experiences and desires”.

These themes, already evident in her work, point towards a thoughtful creative life. With this approach, Newman’s work may help to provide a catalyst for the much-needed introspection required among all South Africans. 

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