It’s old news. Africa – this zebra-gazelled hunterland, home of the majestic painted tribesman – is disappearing. But it’s funny how galleries in London will still create a space for that Africa: cheetahs backlit by a setting sun; zebra turning heads, glory in their asymmetrical unity; glistening, naked (and sometimes naked-and-wrestling) black bodies.
According to the publicity of London’s Atlas Gallery, the photographers chosen for this exhibition are “five of the most important photographers to work in the continent over the last fifty years…each closely related both by geography and inspiration [and in their] urgency to capture images of different worlds, which were soon to disappear.”
Here are the lucky five: Irving Penn (on assignment for “Vogue” in Dahomey–now Benin), George Rodgers (who, after the horror of WWII, wanted to “get away to where the world was clean”, and found that “clean” world on a 28,000-mile overland journey from Cape to Cairo), Mirella Ricciardi (who shot the Masai with “no sense of exploitation of the exotic … but with ‘considerable respect for the inherent nobility of what was before her lens’”), Nick Brandt (who follows in Penn’s footsteps) and Leni Riefenstahl (yes, that Leni).
Now check out Musa Nxumalo – his site is currently under construction, but this hipster – with a penchant for N.E.R.D., ‘80s Britpop (Joy Division, he writes, is his “favourite band of all times”), and graffiti crews (a discovery made prowling about in the dance clubs of Eindhoven in the Netherlands) is doing work with style.
Nxumalo’s “Alternative Kidz“–on kids from townships around Johannesburg and its inner city (as well as Durban) high on rock music, Amstels, cigarettes, and guitars–layers “documentary and fine art photography practices” in order to “explore and reflect on both the society [he] grew up in and currently live in as well as on [his] identity and personal perspective as a young Black man living in South Africa.” Nxumalo’s images follow the lives of urban black youth who “choose to identify with alternative culture,” thereby illustrating how this “alternative” is both “dissonant” and “individually liberating” – providing a space for self-fashioning in face of overwhelming expectations for being stereotypically fashioned.
Adapting non-conventional influences into “township lifestyles” certainly complicates the viewer’s expectation for “Africa” and for “African masculinity” or femininity, for that matter – ain’t nobody oiled up and wrestling naked here, captured in sepia tones. Instead, the images show yawning, skinny-jean sporting boys waking up on unkempt beds (and matching unkempt friends) after nights out, heavy with companionable hangovers. One kid has roped a string of Tibettan prayer beads around his neck – and stares right back at us, his interrogators: aware, sleepy, bored. This is the way I see my nieces and nephews lie about in huddles after long roadtrips: close as a litter, soft, rumpled, and loving – but with an edge of competitiveness and scorn still erupting through.
Nxumalo’s images present a self that is in contrast with expectations for both both ‘traditional’ African and contemporary city/township identity – nowhere is the Black Diamond or the gangsta.
His “frustration about my society’s conformity” is also apparent in the lack of accumlata–-this is AntiBlingLand. As he writes:
I hope to interpret the identity of this generation that is living in this particular juncture in South Africa, by scrutinising and reflecting the flux of self-defined identities within cultural practises not generally associated with ‘township culture’ (such as jazz or kwaito music) but instead with alternative practises such as rock music. By portraying these sub-cultures in my township, I hope to give visibility to the social trends that are occurring within the black youth in townships, as well as dispelling stereotypes of ‘township culture’ that seem to only identify black youth with kwaito and rap. Like with generations before, rock music – associated with a certain rebellious white young crowd – has been taken up by black youth as a medium to voice their concerns and express themselves and this expression is only gaining recognition quite slowly.
Nxumalo’s website also contains a quote from Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: the offer of the possibility for dreaming, developing, and loving within modernity, and the equal possibility of destruction. It’s a fitting thought for a young photographer from the city that rises and falls, according to the desires of modernity:
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.