There’s a strand of South African arts and letters, or cultural work if you’re that way inclined, that’s deeply invested in the jol, its energetics and its epiphanies. It is an art made swimming in booze.
Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo, an experimental photographer and budding art-world darling currently exhibiting at A4 Arts Foundation in Cape Town, is not a member of this kamikaze school of art, whose alumni include Dugmore Boetie, Billie Monk and Drum journalist Casey “Kid” Motsisi. Hlatshwayo was chastened at a young age.
The photographer spent much of his youth growing up next to a notorious tavern on the southwestern edge of Johannesburg. Hlatshwayo was three when, in 1996, his father, Raymond, an unemployed vehicle painter, opened Ray’s Inn in Lawley, near Lenasia. The bar, which occupies a dedicated building next to the family home, is located on the corner of Shad Place, near Piranha Crescent and Shark Place.
Most of the streets in the suburban extension where Hlatshwayo grew up are named after predatory fish. Lawley, though, is a six-hour drive from the nearest ocean, meaning when locals gave the violent drinking den a nickname, they preferred a red-blooded Afrikaans word: slaghuis (butchery).
It was not a frivolous epithet. Hlatshwayo was seven when he woke up to find a body in the yard. He often witnessed the heirs of Motsisi’s “bloodinaires” strike it rich with the discovery of “alluvial blood” at the tavern. The violence left Hlatshwayo feeling guilty and ashamed, although among his young school friends he celebrated the positives.
“I would speak about the cool and interesting things I witnessed at the tavern, but never the violence,” says Hlatshwayo. “It was something I dealt with alone.”
Hlatshwayo was not always able to repress the psychological stress of living in close proximity to the tavern. He sometimes snapped at customers.
“I remember overhearing my parents speak about the fact that I was growing up an angry child. My dad would constantly think about the possibilities of making money elsewhere.” Ray’s lottery numbers never yielded a win.
Years later, while learning the craft of photography, Hlatshwayo decided to revisit the trauma of his upbringing. His current acclaim is largely based on what he did when he returned to Ray’s Inn. But his path back to Shad Place in Lawley was indirect.
After completing high school, Hlatshwayo enrolled in photographic studies at the Vaal University of Technology. He dropped out in his second year. Jabulani Dhlamini, an influential mentor and collaborating exhibitor at Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery in July, persuaded Hlatshwayo to pick up his studies again.
Among other things Dhlamini heads up Of Soul and Joy, a project focused on introducing photography as a viable skill to township youths. Founded in 2012 in Thokoza on the East Rand, the mentorship project offers weekly courses led by local and international photography professionals.
Magnum photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa, winner of this year’s FNB Art Prize, is a star graduate. Emboldened by the autobiographical documentary work of Sobekwa, whose breakout 2015 project focused on friends who were nyaope users, Hlatshwayo returned to Lawley in 2016 with his camera.
His debut essay, Betterment Promised, focused on the residents of an Islamic boarding school, Darul-Uloom Al Ansaar, located three blocks from Ray’s Inn. The school was the source of rumour and misconception among locals: it was an orphanage, a home of former convicts, a place where drugs were manufactured.
Hlatshwayo discovered a different reality. But for certain items of dress, the religious school’s young inhabitants were not dissimilar to him.
“We were all in the same pursuit of self-improvement,” wrote Hlatshwayo in a statement appearing in a 2017 booklet gathering his colour photos of young Muslims learning and chilling. His outsider views through windows and doorways recalled the early work of Mikhael Subotzky.
In 2018, Hlatshwayo secured a place in the advanced programme at the Market Photo Workshop. In its early life during the 1990s, the school promoted documentary traditions and produced a strong cohort of photojournalists. But recent graduates such as Lebohang Kganye and Phumzile Khanyile, building on the work of Zanele Muholi and Nontsikelelo Veleko, have leaned heavily into subjectivity and autobiography, forging a new path for South African photography.
Hlatshwayo’s Slaghuis series further advances this exciting trajectory. Incubated while a student, Slaghuis I (2018) comprises various self-portraits of Hlatshwayo in distressed poses. Nothing new in that, you say. His innovation lay in making prints, which Hlatshwayo, assisted by his father, put up in Ray’s Inn and re-photographed.
Hlatshwayo’s black-and-white photos of his creased and soiled prints showing his crunched likeness were awarded the 2019 CAP Prize for Contemporary African Photography in Basel, Switzerland. That same year he received the Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship in Photography, which enabled him to work with photo curator John Fleetwood.
Hlatshwayo’s visually abstracted photographs, which layer images and experiences, can be read as obscure. They are partly made visible through the words that accompany them. Dhlamini and Fleetwood were each, in their own way, pivotal in helping Hlatshwayo narrate his project.
It was Dhlamini who suggested Slaghuis as the title for the project — Hlatshwayo initially recoiled in terror. Fleetwood provided the nurturing that enabled Hlatshwayo to produce a confident statement of intent to accompany his follow-up series, Slaghuis II, a similarly recondite series of torn, layered and re-photographed images that formed the basis of his 2020 debut solo exhibition at The Workshop.
“There is this thing of people coming to the tavern and leaving themselves there,” wrote Hlatshwayo. “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.”
The Covid pandemic closed his physical exhibition, lending his statement about the tactile image added importance, particularly in the absence of physical representation. Beyond the formal experimentation, Hlatshwayo was interested in overcoming his past.
“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,” Hlatshwayo wrote. “It is not a forgetting, but an awareness that sets one free every time they recount their trauma to themselves.”
With art world success beckoning, how does that statement weather in 2023?
“I was taking a risk, but I really wanted to be honest with myself,” he says. “I was risking people not liking or responding positively, but that was fine — it is more about the story and the honesty.”
In 2021, his father died from Covid. The oldest of three siblings, Hlatshwayo was suddenly confronted with ensuring the tavern’s continuity as a family business. His photo project gained new meaning. “For the longest time I wanted to escape the tavern,” says Hlatshwayo. “I didn’t want to be involved with it, I didn’t want to be inside, but with the work I was forced to create a work inside. There was something empowering about that. Sometimes I think if I had not done the work on Slaghuis, if I had not begun the healing for the future, I would have been a mess getting involved with that space,” he says.