In Conversation with George Mahashe

In Conversation with George Mahashe

Born around Bolobedu in 1982, George Mahashe first practised photography as an assistant to a local itinerant photographer. With a bachelor of technology degree in photography, he has worked as a lecturer and practitioner in commercial photography, exhibiting his photographs and installations locally and internationally. He has since ventured into anthropology and fine art, exploring intersections between photography, anthropology, and artistic practice. He is also interested in photography’s ability to foster dialogue between people, young or old, rural or urban. He argues that people tend to open up and respond when a photograph is presented because we all have an experience of photography, either as the subject, the photographer, or the viewer.

In 2013, Mahashe took part in a series of inter-university seminars on cultural translation between UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art and Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig, under the banner of the Between the Lines symposium. He subsequently spent three months in Berlin researching the photographic archive of the Berlin Missionary Society, produced in Bolobedu and the wider Northern Transvaal between 1881 and 1960. George is particularly interested in how photography is implicated in almost all visual arts practices, and its ability to transgress boundaries between the different disciplines of art and the wider humanities. In this interview with Omenka, he talks about his practice, on-going project and the 2019 edition of Lagos Biennial.

You first practised photography as an assistant to a local itinerant photographer. How long did this period last, and what lessons have remained with you?

I worked with photographer James Mthombeni in a township called Ga-Kgapane in the north-eastern part of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. Mr Mthombeni, whose surname also translates as “photographer” in the isiZulu language, specialised in house calls and also had a studio that offered staged scenes and photo-framing services.  I worked for him on and off for almost two years at the beginning of high school before trying my own hand at photography, servicing mostly my hostel mates in high school.

He bought me my first camera, a Fuji Powershot film camera. At the heart of what I learned from him was that photography is a business, and the photographer who understands that they are in the business of fulfilling their clients’ “fantasies” (and what I now understand as where this fantasy intersects with mine) will go farther in the business. In practice, this meant understanding how photography was not just about making a pleasing likeness of your sitter, but also about making friends with your subject to a point where you see their vision and you can make those photographs without them having to think too much about posing for you.  So, I learned to not overemphasise my camera and to invest in my sitters forgetting that I have it.

One memory that has come to influence me more today happened way before I worked with him. Mthombeni was such a popular photographer that booking him for a party required securing the date way in advance. In any case, he was unable to document my birthday party one year (which he did every year), and to make up for it, he rocked up at my house the next day with a group of boys my age, snacks, drinks, and other popular snacks and re-staged the birthday party that had happened the day before with me dressed up in my birthday outfit. He had communicated with my mother prior to the birthday party to only serve one side of the football-scene cake so that the staged birthday party would look genuine. So, I have a re-staged picture of my birthday party with my neighbours, some cousins, and people I did not know in my photo album. For me, this is one encounter with photography that really drove home the potential of photography and Mthombeni’s understanding of it.

You operate within the wider field of photography, particularly at the intersection of photography, anthropology, archives, and artistic practice. What roles do they play in your process?

The fields I have listed play a role in complicating my understanding of photography and its wider histories beyond its 1830s British/French invention. For example, my engagement with anthropology from a photography point of view has highlighted how one version of photography emerges out of a “colonial” desire to prove that “strange” and indeed diverse ways of being in the world were possible, as 19th century colonialism became (in some cases) about proving that something is indeed possible or exists (not fabricated) beyond the colonising Western metropolis. Of course, some of this evidence mode also got used to legitimise some very problematic beliefs by 19th- and 20th-century Western academics.

At the same time, practising as an artist rooted in a re-articulation of colonial photographs and photographic practices related to anthropology (ethnographic photographs) also pointed out how the ethnographic museum (anthropology museum) was one of the easiest gates (as a colleague once put it) for contemporary artists from the African continent and its diasporas to enter the wider contemporary art “field,” by mounting some form of Institutional Critique of its rationale. This is in a way captured by how art and anthropology have always tried to collaborate on the basis of a recognition of some affinities in how the two disciplines approach the methodology of fieldwork and participant observation (knowing by becoming a member of the community or knowing through one’s own body or experience instead of deferring to analysis of other people’s experiences).

Overall, this is really a question of the archive and how photographs are a big player in the process of revisiting 19th- and 20th-century colonialism and its countering. In a way, I can say that my hovering between these fields has led me to be interested in the idea and practice of a camera obscura as a way of complicating what I think photography is and could become. ­­So, my work in these four fields has extended my understanding of photography’s timeline, shifting when photography “begins” to before the photographic print was invented in the 1830s.

‘Defunct Context’

In your on-going project Defunct Context, you pose a series of interventions that include a collection of archival images reflecting Black gardening activities from the 1950s. What inspired this project and its name?

Defunct Context is a framework that facilitated my time as convener of the Anthropology Museum at the University of Witwatersrand. This museum is a strange one, because it ceased being a museum constituted by a collection in the 1980s, when it transferred its ethnographic collection to the institution that eventually became the Wits Art Museum (WAM). So it is effectively a museum without objects. The expectation when I became convener of this “defunct” ethnographic museum was that I would use it to critically address the idea of an ethnographic museum and its problems (association with the production of racist knowledge practices). There was also a sense that it had become a site from which contemporary Black subjectivities enunciated an offensive against persisting racist knowledge practices, as well as a place where innovative self-representation and expression were happening. So, this defunct museum was understood as a space that could orientate third-year anthropology students to the issues of a critical and visually literate anthropology.

While working on this program, I was very suspicious of the critical exhibition that berated the ethnographic museum or historicised it through forms of Institutional Critique that draw attention to the history and potential of anthropology. So, I resorted to ignore (be ambivalent about) the museum, choosing instead to focus on developing a neglected courtyard flanking the museum. As a rationale for emphasising this courtyard, I argued that the museum was a defunct context, and pointed out that there was a need for more practices that paid attention to what contemporary actors (like myself), who are often asked to do institutional critiques of problematic museums, would be interested in doing, even if it was not immediately seen as critical or confronting the associated ethnographic museum discourses head on.

Within this context, I proposed a convening wooden structure I designed in collaboration with an architecture lecturer teaching structures at Wits, and looked for projects that would possibly convene a different crowd in excess of the invested museologists, archivists, or critical scholars looking to press the politics of persisting colonial representation. So, the Ejaradini (referring to one’s personal space––a garden or courtyard) conceived by artist collaborative MADEYOULOOK was one such project that was legible to the people I was avoiding, but would leave the space open to people who were not obviously invested in the issues of the ethnographic museums. So, the intervention became a temporary garden by MADEYOULOOK, who are interested in the garden as an assertion of Black landed-ness in an environment that repeatedly allocates less and less space to Black subjects. It comprised plants belonging to different people, plants I had to keep alive for two months. The garden, Ejaradini, included photographs related to Black garden practices (its use, cultivation, and so forth).

So, in this case, the historic photograph presented along with the garden did not become central and locked in the discourse around the re-articulation of Black aspiration to middle-class ideals or other forms of complexity associated with these photographs. The garden became a hub with people using it as a backdrop to create new personal photographs, and a space for studying and hanging out. Once the garden was taken away, people continued to use the courtyard, so the intervention by MADEYOULOOK became an incentive for people to claim more personal space.

You presently lecture in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), where you are also responsible for the anthropology museum, as well as for developing programmes on public cultures. How has teaching influenced the evolving nature of your work?

I have since left teaching anthropology at Wits University to teach fine art (first year foundation and fourth year critical thinking) at Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. I have always taught, since I was a fourth-year photography student in 2004, so teaching has always been part of my practice. For me, the best research is teaching. Every year I am astonished at how much I learn about my own practice from the questions posed to me about my own practice (been lucky enough to teach in the same area as my practice so far). Students often ask me questions like “Why do it like this and not like that?”—something I imagined to be the province of a curator or gallerist.

Your current initiatives include Camera Obscura #0, Mefakeng (2019) at Modjadji Nature Reserve in Bolobedu, as well as Modjadji le Dikolobjana in collaboration with Zurich University School of the Arts’ transdisciplinary programme and researchers of the University of Geneva’s astronomy department as part of the 2018 Artist-in-Labs residency programme. Please tell us a bit about these projects.

The two projects are at the beginning stages of development, so they are still a bit vague. The Camera Obscura #0 project comprise two camera obscuras, one of which is to be installed in the Modjadji Nature Reserve in 2020, and the other one is almost complete and is installed on a hill in my grandmother’s home village of Ga-Sekgopo. These projects, which had remained unrealised for three years, are the genesis of six realised camera obscura projects that have been installed in places like Bamako, Wuppertal, Cape Town, and Jerusalem over the last three years. The main aim of these camera obscuras is to literally follow an impulse to see places I have always mythologised as a child. For example, I have a vivid childhood memory of walking through the Mefakeng cycad forest and ending up by a big riverbed filled with crocodiles. But recently, when I tried to walk the route again, I could not find a river; it was just a dense forest that leads to a small campsite. Similarly, with Thabana ya Dafida (the other Camera Obscura #0), as a child, I used to see some village men disappearing to the top of  the hill into an area that was flanked by giant Blue Agave-like plants in a square shape. I was short and could not see what they did inside, so I used to imagine that the hill was Mount Olympus where the gods lived. Now that I have been spending time there installing the camera obscura, I have learnt that my grandmother’s grandfather’s house used to be there before they moved down the hill in the 1950s.  So, the idea was to revisit these sites, and to engage them as a process of understanding why I am so fixated with the idea of a camera obscura, but it has turned out to be an exercise in reviewing some of my childhood memories.

The Modjadji le Dikolobjana project is mainly about the question of instruments as a process of acknowledging that, together with the African ritual artefacts hoarded by colonial museums, there are important technical artefacts that need to be explored as technology. The works come from my understanding of astronomy as being not just about the stars, but also about a dedication to devising the correct instruments necessary to be able to see the stars.

You were one of the facilitators of the inaugural edition of the Lagos Biennial’s curatorial intensive programme, which held in October 2019. Why do you think programmes like these are important?

Such initiatives are very important to the formation of new peer groups within the contemporary art field. And it is even more important that this formation happens on the continent and is convened by actors from/based on the continent. To say peer groups are important recognises that there are no fast rules about what “art” is, so each exception and new/different direction depends on conversations between such peer groups. So, sitting in and watching 30-odd curators recognise each other as valuable resources for themselves was very rewarding. I also recognised that there were a lot of profound conversations between the curatorial fellows that will add to or change aspects of the wider field of art.

How would you evaluate Lagos Biennials impact on the overall direction and development of contemporary African art?

I would not evaluate it, but simply welcome its position as staking a place in the expansion of such exhibition models on the continent.  This is an important position for contemporary art. I think its best intervention is its seemingly manageable size—not small, but not bloated either. This is important, because it poses/reiterates a useful approach to having a biennale on the continent. I found the idea of bypassing all the shipping by working the exhibition copy model to be a useful way to think about sustainable, recurring exhibitions in logistically difficult contexts.

As global attention on contemporary African art increases, what challenges do you foresee for artists and curators, and what conversations do you think we should be having?

To not be completely consumed by filling gaps in the wider contemporary art circuit, aware of the shortfalls in its inclusions of contemporary art from Africa. So, how do we not exhaust our resources doing someone else’s work? I think we should be talking more about how to push the already strong brand/approach to contemporary art strategies in a way that emphasises charting new or different territories, instead of trying to dominate existing ones.

This is already happening, but I think it can be more visible to people on the continent and its diasporas. That said, we should be having more visible conversation with other regions (conception of place beyond nation or geography) of the world (in addition to Western Europe and America) about other things beyond our marginality to the Western centre. We were not always marginal, and I do not see why we will remain so for much longer, so let’s make that more visible.

How can this growing focus on African art be sustained and promoted?

 Like I said in the previous answer, it can be sustained by emphasising the way contemporary art from Africa is shifting the wider discussion beyond questions of marginality, instead of emphasising how contemporary art is a way of distinguishing or managing how we were marginalised by the West. So, by showing more contemporary art from Africa that does not even read as such.

How authentic today is art from the continent, considering increasing Western colouration due to globalisation and the accompanying loss of a characteristic intimacy of process, materiality, and magic?

The question of authenticity is tricky, because everything is authentic to a specific impulse or concern. So, the question would be, authentic in relation to what?

Trends in contemporary African art are still largely dictated by Western patrons and by scholars, many of whom are Africans residing in diaspora and thus may not be directly influenced by stimuli from the continent. Is this an anomaly, and how can a balance be achieved on the African continent?

I think the framing of the question is limiting. I think contemporary art is increasingly influenced by other contexts outside of the West and the diaspora contexts you refer to. For example, the popularity of the multi-located transdisciplinary collectives is one indication of other types of influences on contemporary art. The productive question would be, “To what extent are African (from the continent and diaspora) curators and artists participating on their own terms?” Instead of worrying about Western modernity’s influence on African contexts, we should ask if we are not missing out on understanding new contexts of convening contemporary art and the role of Africans in shaping it.

How influential is African art today in a political context?

Potentially very influential, but not sure if it has to be.


George Mahashe

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