/ 7 May 2020

The Portfolio: Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo

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Childhood trauma: An image from Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo's Slaghuis II exhibition, which can be viewed online (Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo)

The tavern family business was established soon after my parents were retrenched. It was the first of its kind at the time ekaslam. A place frequented by many, it would get uncontrollably violent to a point that some people lost their lives. 

Waking up to a dead body in the yard marks the day I was overwhelmed by the desire to disappear. I was about seven years old at the time. I’d walk around the streets heavy with guilt and shame. Home couldn’t be my safe haven — it was an extension of the tavern. 

The infamy of the tavern gave it the name “slaghuis”, a term that made it hard to breathe whenever it was thrown out in conversations around the neighbourhood. When Jabulani Dhlamini, a mentor and a friend, suggested that I title my project Slaghuis, I was initially petrified.

Although I was kind of fascinated by the idea of recording a feeling, I was also interested in surfaces and how they are treated. There is this thing of people coming to the tavern and leaving themselves there. They mark the space and the space marks me. That’s what drove the process of marking the images, which became a way of putting my emotions on the tactile image.

There is a silence to these photographs, because they deal with the aftermath — when we, the individuals of the habitat, have to deal with the tavern. Sometimes I’d photograph early in the morning or even in the evening when the patrons weren’t there. If they were there, and I felt something, I’d ask them to participate now and then.

As a young  kid, my earliest encounters with the violence of the space was through the window. I’d look through the window to see if my parents were okay, but there was always something obstructing the view, like the curtains, the burglar bars, the congested movements. This perhaps could account for my inclination to photograph through objects or interact with the images in various ways that speak back to these sensations and textures.

Some of my interactions with the image involve tearing, pasting some images together and ripping them off, putting them back in the tavern space for the patrons to put their beers on or ash on them. Then I rephotograph them. 

In retrospect, I feel  the telling and the retelling of one’s traumatic story to a point that it is almost not theirs anymore — to a point of lightness — is therapeutic. It is not a forgetting, but an awareness that sets one free every time they recount their trauma to themselves.

The virtual exhibition of Slaghuis II, up at the Market Photo Workshop, can be viewed at  photoformafrica.com