In the days leading up to the sit down with Trevor Stuurman, he had been on flights from London to Durban to Johannesburg again, where we sat in Glow Studios, Killarney. All around him, things were continuously moving.
When I walked into the studio, the crew had just finished a shoot and were actively in the process of taking things down. We manoeuvred between shifting equipment and busybodies, all doing their part to ensure the success of another project. When the moment came that Stuurman could finally sit down for our long anticipated chat, I got the sense that in spite of all the pandemonium, there was nowhere he’d rather be than here, in South Africa. At home.
“I guess I’m a small-town boy, living my big-city dreams in Johannesburg, and everywhere else in the world,” the visual storyteller and artist said, introducing himself. He carries an air of humility for someone who has shot the likes of Barack Obama and had his work featured in Vogue.
“I think Kimberly made me in the true sense of the word ‘made’”, he reflected on his hometown. “It’s the place where I’ve spent the longest. 18 years of my life were spent in Kimberly, and that’s a big chunk of my life. My formative years were spent in Kimberly.”
It’s not an age old story—the story of small-town living to big-city success. But in the South African arts scene, it’s a story which isn’t told nearly enough. Due to a number of political, socio-economic and infrastructural challenges, it’s so often that the talents of these smaller towns on the geographical margins of the country never get to shine. As with every country, money is poured into the big city centres. That money is tied in a band, with opportunity wedged in between the notes.
But Trevor doesn’t see Kimberly that way. He doesn’t look at his home town as the absence of opportunity; quite the opposite in fact. “It was a safe space for myself, and a literal blank canvas for me to develop my creative muscle,” he reflected, transporting himself back to the town. In his mind, as visual as it is, the picture of Kimberly was forming again. A vast landscape, uncluttered and unchartered. The softness in his tone and the contemplation of his words allow me to see it too, through the same viewfinder.
“It gave the ability to operate from a clean slate. I think, for example, if you live in a big city,” he says, referring to one just like Joburg. The lens is pointed away to something else. Something with a beauty of its own, but a very different one altogether. “There are so many visual stimuli, visual cues. Things that can excite you!”
“I think when you don’t have much, you can kind of imagine and fill in the gaps of things you might have in your mind.” Now we’re back to Kimberly, possibly? In conversation, I follow along with him in his travels. I am taken to vastness, to big cities, to bigger-than-life cities. Yet, he remains the same. In his words, he is a seasoned explorer who uses travel as his core inspiration.
We got to speaking about the presence of already existing visual codes when he first came to Johannesburg. These things are socially constructed, and like the physically constructed monuments that tower for floors and floors above us, they’re impossible to miss. What Telkom Tower is to the world of architecture was what the Braamfontein street style fashion era was to the aesthetics world; a signature of the city.
“There are a lot of subcultures and ways of life within big cities. That then allows certain visual languages to exist, and certain visual cues. What it allows is that people speak the same language, visually. There are different kinds of people. You find those like-minded people gravitating towards each other and expanding on that language. So, I would say [these visual codes] definitely [do] exist.”
Stuurman raises an interesting point here. Johannesburg can be such a melting pot of different tribes and cultures. In the midst of such diversity, commonness is something sought after and cultivated. If one can seek out solace in the comfort of common verbal language, what’s to stop us from scouring the crowd to find someone who stylistically expresses themselves in a way we resonate with?
And these things develop. These codes are cast in stone. After all, style is supposed to be experimented with! At least, for Stuurman, that’s how he came to develop his visual language. “I think it was through experimenting and exploration and just having fun. Just figuring myself out. I don’t think it’s something that’s well thought out, in the sense of ‘oh, I need a visual language!’ It’s like learning how to speak,” he says, speaking with such ease. The sounds of music that lay on the borders of jazz and hip-hop bounce softly off the studio walls. Ease breeds ease, it seems.
“It’s like just learning how to speak, from being a baby,” he continues. “You start with one word, and then you are able to build the sentence. From the sentence, it becomes a paragraph. And from a paragraph, you know…” he trails off. His portfolio is a testament to what these paragraphs turn into. This visual language occupies space right alongside textual language, again, as seen in Vogue.
But his point of reference isn’t Vogue, at least in its history. He looks to African vernacular photography as a reference for his own art. “A lot of photographers from West Africa, and that sort of vintage make-shift photography, where they worked with what they had at their disposal. Where they documented the everyday life of the African experience. Even from a South African photography point of view, photographers documented everyday life during the struggle. I find that type of photography so beautiful. As much as struggle images were important, I think it was so important to document the style. I think existence during that time was also resistance.”
The trained eye of such a visual artist is able to see the beauty in what could otherwise be disregarded as inconsequential elements of day-to-day living. But to live, day to day, in spite of forces trying to actively erase you, is indeed a feat. To put on clothes and present oneself beautifully, in the face of resistance, is resistance. To Trevor, they’re not just clothes. “[Fashion cultures are] the work,” he says without a moment’s hesitation when I ask about their intersection with his work. “Fashion is the backbone of the actual work. It’s the skeleton and the face.”
It’s important to remember that he got his creative start in the industry by working as the Elle Style Reporter in 2012. Since then, his love for the magazine as an archival document hasn’t ever stopped. It’s apparent in every photograph, that this is the work of someone who has a relationship with the editorial. Every cover he shoots—GQ Middle East, Home and Leisure and Superbalist to name a few—understands the cover as an entry into a world.
Each cover is the entry into a new world and forms a part of a greater universe. Throughout, there is the commonality of a vibrancy unique to Africa. These works, themselves, are of colour—rich in history, with clear parallels to a tradition of photography that dates before Stuurman. Take for instance his journey through Senegal.
History is alive in these photos. The architecture of the buildings, weathered by time, is captured with reverence for their age and the hands before, which built them. He frames himself and other subjects in the photos in such a way that the context of the photograph is as important to its reading as the person. The pink and orange of a dress in one photo pick up on the process of ageing paint in another. Side by side, they read as a powerful story of perseverance. The products and labours of an African past have not passed. They are here, embodied by the youth.
Importantly, Stuurman works to disrupt ideas of a stoic Black perseverance with a key element: joy. In his Nigeria series, Stuurman shoots and curates images which show a Black joy alongside a flamboyant, assertive pride in culture. Against white walls, the cultural attire makes a vivid statement. Loudest of all, are the smiles illuminated under a down pouring of light. In the moment that the subjects tilt their heads up to the sky, Stuurman captures a complex range of emotions. Is it perhaps relief? Is it excitement for the future? Is it a gratitude towards something, someone, or some forces harder to photograph, in its unearthly placement?
A Place Called Home implicitly deals with the complexity of placement. It is the first solo exhibition of Stuurman’s work by Botho Project Space which took place in Parktown, Johannesburg. “The original idea was doing a show on the concept of home and what it means to be home for the new generation. Moving from what used to be called ‘home’ to what they call home today. We have built the exhibition around showcasing art in a home space,” Botho’s codirector, Anna Reverdy, shared with The Mail & Guardian.
In the Parktown home which made for the exhibition space, Stuurman, acting in a new curatorial capacity, used each room of the house to be a visual monument to the cultures he encountered on his travels, following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That was just an experimenting in unpacking the idea of what home could look like, what it is,” he said. “Unpacking my travels from the last year and images I had shot during the pandemic. And it was places that represented home for me outside of my home.”
Explaining the lay of the land, he added: “We created a home. Each room was dedicated towards a country. The lounge was Nigeria, the dining room was Senegal, and the bedroom was Ghana. It was just all the countries I’d travelled to that year.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how these constant travels affected his relationship with home. Did home begin to feel more and more alien, or, more warmly, a memory? But of course, South Africa possesses its own magnetism.
“I think it made me closer to home because every time you leave, you’re inspired to dig deeper. When you see the difference, you find the value,” he reflects. “You see, for example, London: You get there and there’s electricity, and everything works, no potholes. But the feeling of home doesn’t exist anymore. The people aren’t as warm… the essence of it… you can put it on a scale, and South Africa still tops. You’re able to appreciate the differences, and what is lacking. But home always comes out on top.”
It’s the people, for Stuurman.
“I think art is about representation, reflection and people seeing themselves,” he muses, contemplating the relationship between his art and the people it reaches all over the world. “It’s about people seeing others they might overlook or undervalue. It’s about making people feel for others.”
In this sense, while the promise of something better and greener pastures might not be for Stuurman, his art makes an offering for audiences who he otherwise might experience a disconnect from. With home being such a pivotal driving force in his travel-inspired work, it makes sense that he offers his art as something for people to find some familiarity in. And simply with the diasporic nature of Blackness, the journey to find familiarity is a never-ending one for many.
Stuurman can also admit that home, in the strictly geographical sense, is not a land of perfection. Of all the things he wishes he could bring over from the global North, especially in the context of artistic production, “the most pressing would be… power.”
“And electricity, and light,” he goes on to say. Power here as in the actual electricity that is supposed to be enabling our work and personal functioning. “There’s so much value in that. The fact that we don’t have a constant supply of energy and electricity means that it disrupts your focus from any industry, or just being a human.”
For Stuurman, it goes beyond a (lack of a) metre reading. The disruption of the energy flow ripples into the humane and translates into a lack of synergy and energy on the ground. For whole communities at a time, energy is lost. “It’s just disruptive. And you could have a generator or an inverter, but you exist in a bigger community. The fact that you have power at home doesn’t neglect the fact that your community is in need and you need to co-exist with others. It affects everyone.”
“Even inefficiency is normalised […] you can miss a deadline and it’s just normal.”
This issue of efficiency is one directly pertinent to his practice as an artist. With all artists, in this country. We get to speaking and laughing over the apparent absence of free-ness in freelancing. The trade-off to follow dreams, which don’t have a clear path, but don’t often lead into neat office spaces. But instead, they often lead to ridiculous hours, governed by no established parameters. Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes, it is just a job.
But how and why Stuurman came into the particular line of work he did, is a fascination. He studied Motion Picture at AFDA but has since gone on to do a lot more portraiture work. “I think it’s quite strong and personal,” he explains. “I’m drawn to stories of people and places, and I think portraiture allows you to capture that.”
That inclination towards portraiture doesn’t make for an uncrossable border, however. He has experience in motion pictures, and very recently and notably, worked on the filming of the Disney+ exclusive, Black is King, starring and directed by Beyoncé. I mention this, which he simply makes a humble acknowledgement of.
What I didn’t mention was that that wasn’t even his first time getting involved with Parkwood Entertainment (Beyoncé’s label). He had been the photographer for her Global Citizen performance, capturing her as well as Jay-Z and their touring team.
These are the kind of moments, which many artists work for countless years to just hopefully be able to put on their CV one day. For Stuurman, as I was bewildered to find out, this was all happening in his early to mid-20s. I questioned how it felt to be dealing with such big projects at such a young age.
“I feel like you don’t even deal with it, you just do it,” he says, plainly. “In the moment, you don’t have time to think about it. You have to get the job done. I also did not have a roadmap of the future or a roadmap of what’s next. It was always about each project leading to the next, and understanding that it’s a puzzle. Every piece counts. Every piece ultimately makes the greater puzzle. It was about taking it piece by piece as opposed to seeing it at this grand plan.”
Would Trevor Stuurman ever say one is ready for these big projects? These Beyoncé-shaped puzzle pieces? “Absolutely! Yes,” he says. “There are certain things that you have to have ready. For me, I always say you have to pray for readiness, not money or opportunities. The money will come, and the opportunity will come. But are you ready? Ensure that you are mentally, physically ready for whatever the opportunity is.”
“For example, compliance: Saying, ‘Oh, I want to do international jobs, but I don’t have a visa’ or ‘I don’t have a passport.’ You need the basics to get you into the room.” It’s a logical consideration in a field which seems to be dominated by affect—the emotional.
For Trevor, his 30s, which he has just entered, are about building a legacy. “To build a long-lasting legacy of this new visual language and contribute to future archives. Ensuring that there’s a tangible impact on how people see themselves in relation to the world. Being able to cultivate a culture of sharing resources and opportunities.”
It’s a sensibility of legacy which comes with age and experience. Stuurman, like the West African photographers who made photography what they could, given their resources, has made decisions for legacy while still being so young.
“I still do this for myself, because it makes me feel most alive,” he says, on who he does this for. “And I’m doing this for those that I don’t even know, as yet. Those future generations that will have a more positive reflection of who they are, in terms of just visual references. Being able to hop on Google and search ‘Black Art’ and be able to see a better representation of the art that is collected, consumed and made in Africa, as opposed to what we currently see. So it’s about populating different archives, whether digital or physical.”
In everything, Stuurman makes space for a gentleness. I think of how each photograph, each exhibition, and each body of work that he produces is to invest in the archives for generations of Black people who might not even be alive yet, to appreciate what went down in the studio that day we met to talk legacy. It is a gentle act of consideration, like boiling the kettle before company arrives.
It’s perhaps a Kimberly kind of hospitality, in a big and bustling world. Drawing from ideas of home, the people that make it, and those that had made it before, it is clear that A Place Called Home is but the start. He himself believes that when it comes to the work of learning, there’s still “A lot! A lot about business, a lot about people, a lot about my own value. It’s like the more you know, the more you know you know nothing.”
It is just a pleasure that with every image hung up, or puzzle piece placed on the dining room table, Stuurman welcomes us in. Amidst all of it, the gentle hum of the kettle can be heard in the background. Something is brewing.