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The Portfolio: Sethembiso Zulu

Christina Zamashenge Mdlangamandla is my maternal grandmother, who died at the age of 34, years before I was born. August 11 marked the 52nd anniversary of her death. I decided to use my photography to pay homage to her. She communicates with me through dreams.

This image is one of 34 photographs titled Ukwambulela, which means “revelations”. It is an intensely spiritual series using my favourite medium to document my and my grandmother’s encounters. It combines mysticism, surrealism and some of the sacred rituals I performed throughout my journey with her.

In 2005, I embraced the calling to become a traditional healer but I grappled with the reality of living a double life; one as an artist and the other as a healer.

This series helps to communicate my pursuit of wellness through the depiction of prayer near or inside a river.

The first dream in which my grandmother, a devoted Zion churchgoer, came to me showed her inside a river wearing a white prayer garment. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been taught white clothes symbolise communicating with ancestors and spiritual healing. The white cloth has carried me throughout my spiritual excursions, and acts as the protagonist in this series.

What fascinates me about this subject matter is that it provides an opportunity to change the narrative. For years traditional healers and prophets have been depicted negatively, either in photography or text, and I was encouraged to tell the story from an insider’s perspective.

I hope that the viewer understands they are seeing an alternative reality — and not just a photograph — that mixes surrealism and dreams. Why focus on the artistic aspects alone when the subject matter allows an escape from one reality into a brief moment in a world we’re not always in tune with?

My photographs make for detailed stories and use symbols that are meant to be read and analysed with an open mind. In them, I explore healing, life and death to show that reality has intricate ties with what we call the fantastical.

My images are representational of life in so far as they may trigger feelings and emotions that will resonate with most viewers.

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Sethembiso Zulu
Born in Vosloorus, a township located east of Johannesburg in South Africa, Zulu is an artist, writer , documentary photographer, filmmaker, Healer and an ardent Jazz vinyl collector. He attained an affinity for the photographic medium at an early age. Notwithstanding that he was surrounded by different forms of artistic practices during his childhood, he took a liking to “camera work”, which he explored through being a multimedia content producer for various media outlets and of course through his own artistic practice. Zulu’s oeuvre comprises other enthralling, photographic works such as Fafi (2015), and Jazz Colossus (2009-2019), which in their own ways both attend to the quotidian experiences of township and urban living. But in these specific series, Inzila, Ukwambulelwa, and Ikhaya Lika Moya, one gets a clearer sense of his preoccupation with detailing themes concerning ancestry and divination practice.

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