On Thursday 9 April, “In Search Of…”, a photographic exhibition by artist and photographer, Musa Nxumalo was opened at the Goethe-Institut in Parkwood, Johannesburg. Described as depicting ‘the melting pot that is urban youth culture in Johannesburg’ the project offers glimpses into the life of the artist and subjects depicted through his documentary lense, spanning over a four-year period. I sat down with Musa Nxumalo to discuss “In Search Of…”.
“In Search Of…” is my first big project that has small bodies of work that have to do with what I call a journey to self-discovery. I always imagine [the project] as a project that will give you a sense of a young male from the township, who doesn’t want to be confined by the social issues that are common in spaces like the township. Someone who is interested in getting out and exploring the world and who understands their background and is also critical of their background. I’m conscious of the dysfunctions, I’m conscious of the goods that are happening there but I’m very critical of my background and I’m not interested in the idea of pinning down myself as someone who is from ekasi. Someone who is interested in moving from that and being a world citizen.”
Since producing his first body of work in 2008, Alternative Kidz, Nxumalo’s work has continued to allude to socio-political issues characterised through individual and social struggles with identity, self-discovery and culture. “Alternative Kidz”’ and “Friends/Damned” depicted his fascination with, and immersion within, alternative cultures in the townships by focusing on black youth in Soweto challenging and rejecting popular township culture (synonymous with Kwaito and Hip Hop) by choosing to identify with rock and punk culture. His project working with the family album, titled “A Half Built House”, and “In/Glorious” explored the concept of family as well at the not-so-glamorous reality of township life which epitomised the basis of Soweto’s punk scene rebellion.
“There’s stuff in the townships that keeps us in a cycle of dysfunction that we take and embrace as our culture, like hanging out in the corner. I do not believe that it’s our culture, it’s something that happens when youth in the townships don’t have employment or the tools to get a job. Working with the family album was something that wanted to bring those ideas into my project because my family album is mostly pictures of my aunts and uncles as young adults and they are on the streets with friends and in the shebeens, you know. For me, it is a clear picture of what is currently happening. There was no difference, it’s just a matter of time and how people are dressing up and the fact that our roads are tarred now but it’s a circle of dysfunction. That got me to create “In/Glorious”.
In essence, “A Half Built House” and “In/Glorious” saw a turn in the focus of Nxumalo’s work, who began to take an interest in documentary the alternative perspective which informed punk rebellion. He began to explore the question of why he, as well as individuals identifying with alternative cultures, wanted to reject township culture rather than celebrate it.
“I think that [the project] is informed by the belief that a lot of the issues that keep bringing us back as the youth, particularly from the townships, is the idea of embracing the township so much and keeping ourselves in the townships so much that we close ourselves to the opportunities of seeing or understanding the world at large. For example, I feel like the ghettos all over the world are the same. In South Africa we tend to separate ourselves from the world, or imagine that we’re not similar to other parts of the world. It’s only when you open up to that that you realise that we are fighting the same battles as the guy in Manhattan.”
It is perhaps this idea that I felt was most impactful at the exhibition. The images are lively and haunting, depicting both freedom, in the form of people such as lesbians and transgendered people owning and embracing their identity publicly, and a sense of dystopia, reflected in images of reckless, drunken partying. Looking at these images, it’s no wonder they call us the Lost Generation so often. In the same breath, we are reminded about the context that breeds a generation that is seemingly lost. We are reminded about a lack of facilities for recreational activities and the high levels of unemployment in the townships as well as how materialism and consumerism has glorified flashy lifestyles. We are also reminded of how these circumstance extend beyond the confines of townships in South Africa and across racial and social lines.
“It’s my life. I’m documenting it. I’m expressing it. I’m exploring it. I’m not interested in making photographs that are beautiful.”
Nxumalo’s documentary approach is influenced by photographers such as Santu Mofokeng and Ernest Cole who blur the line between researcher or documenter and participant. Telling the story remains a central theme in their works that reflect where they come from, where they are and the issues that affect them. These influences are evident in Nxumalo’s work and reflects his understanding of his role as photographer as someone that should reflect reality and engage in social commentary and activism. In doing so, he aims to help people understand situations better and change perspectives.
“I make the practice, the photographs my own, not just another guy in Africa with a camera, identifying as a photojournalist or artist, making beautiful work or making incredible exposures.”
For Nxumalo, with the growing accessibility of practice of photography through technology, everyone is practically a photographer. To be honest, the images presented as part of the exhibition tell a story that many of us have heard many times before, but it is the intimacy of each photograph, each quote, each video clip that makes the story a unique representation of a broader narrative which goes beyond the immediate subject matter. “In Search Of..” not only holds up a mirror to society in a thought-provoking manner but also comments on the contextual complexity of culture and identity in South Africa today.
The exhibition provides a selection of visuals from Nxumalo’s forthcoming book, “In Search Of…”, which has been nominated for the First Book Award. “In Search Of…” will be running until 31 May at the Goethe Institut, 119 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood.
Words by @ThatGirlFati