/ 14 February 2023

uHambo: 10 years of Soul and Joy

Vuyo Mabheka (a work from the ‘Popiheis’ project will exhibit at ‘uHambo (Journey)’.

‘For me this work is an autopsy of my dead childhood’

‘Photographs are gifts from the past so that we can see, remember and perhaps understand, and even make, [things] better. Sometimes unwanted gifts. But photographs are also reflectors of now. A necessary moment of looking at self,” writes curator and educator John Fleetwood in the new Of Soul and Joy (OSJ) book 10 Years, which celebrates its 10th anniversary.  

“The beauty of photographs lies in the sharing,” he says, which is exactly what OSJ has done. The social arts initiative in Thokoza, Johannesburg, began the year by launching an exquisite A3 hardcover photographic book and hosting a group exhibition at the Umhlabathi Gallery in Newtown, Johannesburg. 

Picture of success: The work of former Of Soul and Joy student Sibusiso Bheka

uHambo of photographers

The exhibition, titled uHambo (Journey), is a visual discourse among the nine photographers — present students and alumni — about their photographic journey, each looking back at their childhood or events that have shaped them.

The aim is to create links between their respective works as well as generating a space for dialogue between their narratives. 

“It’s almost like a conversation between the older students and the newer students,” explained photographer Tshepiso Mazibuko to the audience at the opening. 

The eclectic work displayed by the young and ambitious documentary photographers showed diversity, creativity and thought-provoking visual storytelling. 

Mazibuko, who started her photographic journey when OSJ opened its doors in 2012, confessed to the audience she never thought she would one day become a photographer. Her work has been shown locally and internationally, she was the recipient of the Tierney Fellowship in 2017 and, the following year, received the Prince Claus Fund Award.

The only woman in the group, Mazibuko shared untitled, abstract black-and-white images about her childhood memories growing up in a large family that was sometimes dysfunctional and chaotic but also shared good times. The work is a continuation of her project Black Mampatile — Hide and Seek. 

“For me, this work is an autopsy of my dead childhood,” she said, adding that it might also be about her relationship with photography, as she often feels the urge to subvert conventions. 

Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo’s Slaghuis won him the prestigious CAP Prize in 2019 and was featured on the group exhibition Before the Night at Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland. 

The series explores the tavern his parents owned, where Hlatshwayo grew up and witnessed violence and death. The infamy of the venue earned it the name “slaghuis”, Afrikaans for “butchery”. 

In search of relief and resolve, he transformed the tavern into his studio, where he laid bare his anger and turmoil. 

“The markings on the images also draw from the tavern having marked me, and the customers having marked the tavern. Not only am I continuing the chain of aftermaths but perhaps also fighting for and against the erasure.”

Lunathi Mngxuma’s self-portraits, titled Tangled (Ukuxinana), express how, scarred by his mother’s death, he developed different personas in order to belong. 

He takes photographs of himself wearing different masks and dressed in women’s clothing in order to grieve for his mother, who was a domestic worker, while preserving his memories of her. 

The making of the masks was enhanced by his interest in reading psycho-philosophical books, watching movies, animation films and documentaries. 

In the book, Fleetwood highlights that most documentary photographers who grew up post-apartheid in South Africa have shifted photography towards questions of identity politics, experimentation with new urban cultures and the visual cultures that have become possible through social media and new technologies. 

The book also features the work of Litha Kanda, Katiso Mazibuko, Thandile Zwelibanzi, Jabulani Dhlamini and the amazingly talented Lindokuhle Sobekwa, who are not part of the exhibition.

A surprising entry on the show was Vuyo Mabheka’s ongoing project Popiheis (dollhouse). It explores his childhood memories of growing up in a household without a father figure and how his family moved around in different communities. 

“I use ‘a dollhouse’ as a reference because it’s something you can move around whenever you feel like it, and the characters are real, but they only exist in my head during playtime,” says Mabheka. 

Photographs from his childhood are featured in each piece, accompanied by photographs of random people he took in the streets, to make a collage on hand-drawn colourful backgrounds. “I have memories with people that I never saw again, once I moved out of a community, and I have always longed for a stable home, a place my family owns,” the artist recalls. 

The work is not necessarily photography, as Mabheka also uses drawing and collage in his process of creating. 

“The work is only photography for exhibition purposes but commercially processed as multimedia cutouts on cotton rag.” 

Siphiwe Vilakazi suffered from psoriasis growing up and was teased about it. In his work he explores the skin disorder and how common the problem is in black communities. 

“Street history fed me questions and fuelled curiosity around skin: how humans gave birth to the stitches of previous struggles with skin diseases, loneliness and the experience of ‘imperfect’ skin’,” writes the 30-year-old.

In some images he juxtaposes people living with albinism with dark-skinned people which he says was informed by the individuals’ friendship. 

“I’m challenging the typical perspective when it comes to people and creating a colour wheel that is eye-catching in the same image to create a conversation,” he explains. 

Never Ride Alone, by Sikelela Mdilikwana; Remnants by Litha Kandab and iQhakaza by Fuwe Molefe still need to be developed further for them to be effective and powerful. 

The work of former Of Soul and Joy student Sibusiso Bheka has been exhibited internationally. Siphiwe Vilakazi

I applaud photographer and manager Jabulani Dhlamini, who’s been on the OSJ ship since 2015, for his hard work, patience and boldness. He has managed to influence and inspire youngsters, who mostly come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who have never used a camera before, to be mavericks and not follow the norm.  

From my experience as a facilitator at the Market Photo Workshop, not many students are willing to open up about their past and make themselves vulnerable so the world can see who they really are. In most cases a year is not enough.  

The programme benefits about 20 participants each year, aged between 15 and 30, from Buhlebuzile Secondary School or in and around Thokoza. 

Dhlamini, supported by photographer Thandile Zwelibanzi, conducts two weekly workshops and regularly invites professional practitioners to present their work to inspire students or evaluate their work. They also host photo festivals and exhibitions. 

Each year, promising students are awarded scholarships by funders Rubis Mecenat and Easigas to further their photography studies at universities of their choice. 

Through their association with the prestigious Magnum Photos since 2016, Lindokuhle Sobekwa, after being selected for the I Carry Her Photo With Me project and being funded to further his Nyaope long-term project, became a member last year and is flying the South African flag high.  

Former student Sibusiso Bheka’s Stop Nonsense and At Night They Walk With Me projects shot him from obscurity to prominence. His work has been exhibited locally and internationally and was nominated in 2019 for the CAP Prize. 

Last year, he became the first student at OSJ to be selected for a residency and mentored for two weeks at the Noor international agency for documentary and visual storytelling in Amsterdam, Netherlands. 

In its decade of existence, the OSJ has been a life-changing experience for the youths who have dared to explore uncharted territory and prove that photography is not dying but evolving. 

However, Dhlamini is concerned by the low turnout of girls and young women in their programme, even though they usually register more girls than boys every year. 

“They lack parental support. Maybe that might be reflective of our societal problems” … many do not see “photography as a career for girls”. he says but assures me that they are coming up with ways of involving parents and guardians to tackle the problem.  

He is positive about the future. OSJ has embarked on extensive community projects in other provinces and he is looking forward to seeing the photographers becoming professionals and making a good living.

Happy 10 year anniversary to Of Soul and Joy, may you see many more years to come!

The exhibition runs until 24 February and the book cost R500. The proceeds go towards the Of Soul and Joy programme