What makes a good portrait? What has made this genre so important that it became its own discipline within the arts? It is a medium that pulls you in through one’s need to connect with others. It objectifies the self as a moment in time. The viewer is seduced by this static self and we begin to realize something about ourselves through this 2 dimensional other. Is this who I used to be? Is this what I want to become? Is this the person who I never ever want to become? These works force us to answer these questions as we begin to tap into a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Yet attitudes towards photography must not be generalized. At a point in history Native Americans were accused of being fearful of having their picture taken out of fear for their souls being stolen by the machine . Ironically the very process of picture taking has long since been a tool of colonialization. Indigenous peoples would find themselves exoticized by being categorized as inferior under the guise of scientific enquiry. The camera has never been an objective tool. It can very easily lie when placed in unscrutinized hands.
Mina Nawe is a photographic series which breaks down this disconnect between subject and voyeur, reconnecting the person to their audience. Its very name translates to “you and me” and represents a need for the viewer to engage with the model through the political landscapes of our continents heritage of black portraiture.
The series conjures up the vibrancy of Malick Sedibe’s portraits of young Malians. “Critics say his photos of Mali’s post-colonial period helped people see the West African nation in a new light” but his work would also function to normalize what it means to be African. No longer to be the object of study and western enquiry.
Malik explained his photographs as being “a world, someone’s face. When I capture it, I see the future of the world.”
Mina Nawe continues this tradition of bringing back the life to a space where black lives don’t matter. The series is a collaboration between stylist Slomokazi (Silondile Jali) and photographer Paul Shiakallis. Their project “showcases modern African style and beauty by exploring gender roles, identity and affordability” (Mina Nawe, 2016).
In the photographs we see two people; a couple, brother and sister, lovers or just friends; it is not clear. What is clear is that they are sharing this space through formal stance. Like the old school studio portraits, their pose exposes a regality that in contemporary times tends to be unjustly accused of lacking a dignity reminiscent of a previous generation.
Yet the viewer is confronted with another layer to these familiar portraits. A bearded body in a skirt. An Afro crowned goddess in suit pants. Sexuality becomes fluid and the clothes can no longer be used to identify gender. A child presumably younger than 16 is also featured yet their clothing stands in stark contrast with their “adoptive photo parents”. His clothing is grunge or comfortable street wear. Oversized shirts and heavy boots. The series seems to be playing with the concept of the generation gaps through styles. The formality of the “parents” pose in contrast with the child just standing in front of the camera but with a certain rigidity.
Two worlds are at play within the series and we the viewers are invited to engage. These are black bodies as beautiful. They are black bodies as normal. They are black bodies whose gender and I dare say sexuality is even questionable. Yet the very act of such questioning reflects not the problem of styling but the viewer’s unquestioned assumptions over what constitutes gender. We have so much to learn about ourselves as South Africans and it is through such portraits, and states of confusion, that one can get their start in self-understanding.