Photography by Cole Ndelu

Cole Ndelu’s unapologetic and striking imagery inspire a sense of freedom

Warmth, faces, composure, a glare, melanin accentuated —it is all in the lighting.

When the light hits my face at just the right angle, all my problems disappear.

This simple line sounds frivolous and nonchalant, but it is exactly the kind of care-free attitude that black girls, black women and black bodies have been denied. To see black bodies photographed as they are and as they want to be seen without an agenda, is unusual (thanks cultural hegemony and respectability). This is not to say the work is not political. It is, but on its own terms. Cole Ndelu is the visual communicator and creator of this incredible imagery.

She makes work with a soul—engaging something bigger.

Here Ndelu speaks about her passion for creating, walking the thin line between commercial photography and fine art, what it is that centres her art practice and how love can be an act of defiance. 

You describe yourself as “a visual communicator”—what would you say you are attempting to communicate, to whom and why? 

I guess I call myself a visual communicator because I’m not comfortable with ‘artist’ yet and find photographer to be an over-simplification of what I do and can do. I say visual communicator because I make work that speaks, that’s engaging something larger. My body of work is about celebrating black bodies, it’s about engaging the politics of masculinity and creating work that reflects the spaces (mental and physical) I inhabit. I make work for brown girls and boys, I have two little sisters and I want them to know that they are beautiful and that their dreams are possible.

Your work is largely concerned with the portrait—what is it about the body, particularly the black body, that is interesting to you? 

I love faces—I’m just attracted to people’s faces, to that thing that makes them unique – the curl of the lip, shape of the eyes, jawline, etc. I want to capture that, play it up and show a different side of the person. I also really enjoy fashion portraiture. I draw a lot from fashion and that’s why my work is so stylized. 

Also, I just really love being black. It kinda comes down to that. 

You have been part of some interesting and meaningful exhibitions: A letter to my 22 year old self (2018) at the Absa Gallery, Behind the Lens (2018) at BKHZ  Studio – how do you see the role of the exhibitions in shaping or influencing a young artist’s work? Do exhibitions matter and why?

I can’t speak for other people, only for myself. I take part in exhibitions because I like to walk the line between commercial and fine art. I like the idea that an image I make can be in a magazine and hang on a gallery wall too.

There are financial benefits to taking part in exhibitions because it allows a different type of audience to see and purchase your work. I also enjoy entering spaces that don’t have a lot of black women’s voices in them – my presence in those space matters – and it is not just about now, it is about tomorrow when I am history. I have to be there in the history books (whatever they look like 20 years from now), influencing the future.

Your image; ‘Pride of the Panther’, was shortlisted and exhibited as part of the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards. Can you tell us about that image?

Arguably the most important image I have ever made. Also the most misunderstood image, people always call it the #FeesMustFall photo but this image speaks to protest action in general, specifically to the youth led revolutions that were happening online.

At the time I was looking at the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Occupy Wall Street and Fees Must Fall.

This image was about looking at that relationship between protest online and IRL. I also wanted to change the look of protest action where students are depicted as feral. I wanted to exhibit thoughtfulness, strength, complexity and grace.

I took the image in studio; picturing Zana Masombuka (aka Ndebele Superhero) and styled by Misa Narrates. I like experimenting and playing around, I like trying new things and building an arsenal of skills and that project is the result of that.

Congratulations on your recent achievement – the Getty Images Creative Bursary Grant. Can you tell us about the work you submitted – A Study of Femininity: a radically soft portraiture series subverting the abject?

Thank you very much! The objective of the project is to explore femininity and masculinity in relation to the black body. It’s about photographing black women and men embracing qualities that are tied to femininity. It’s about allowing people to be soft, vulnerable and free to be. And that takes strength. 

But within the project is a lot of other stuff too, I’m trying to say a lot with this project – I’m talking to a lot of structures and ways of thinking and seeing.

What goes into your artistic practice? What are the things that you consider crucial in allowing you to create interesting and meaningful work in a sustainable manner?

Research. I do a lot of research—reading, watching documentaries, watching movies, watching people work, listening to podcasts, etc. I consider myself to be a perpetual student. I’m always taking a class, trying a new technique or watching a tutorial (sometimes I just have them playing in the background). I’m also big on planning, I like to leave a very small margin [for] error. I like to have a solid team (which I do) because it makes working easy because it means I can focus on what I need to focus on. 

The support of my friends and family is also crucial. My big sister is usually with me when I shoot; taking behind the scenes photos, carrying stuff or making snacks and even lets me use her place as my studio.

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