In Conversation with Jabulani Dhlamini
South African artist Jabulani Dhlamini was born in Warden, Free State, in 1983. He majored in documentary photography at the Vaal University of Technology and graduated in 2010. From 2011 to 2012, Dhlamini was a fellow of the Edward Ruiz Mentorship and completed a year-long residency at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. Dhlamini’s work focuses on his upbringing, as well as on the way he views contemporary South Africa.
His Umama series was exhibited as part of his Edward Ruiz award at the Market Photo Workshop in 2012, and at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town in 2013. In 2018, Dhlamini’s work was featured on the Five Photographers, A Tribute to David Goldblatt group exhibition at the Gerard Sekoto Gallery at the French Institute. In 2019, Dhlamini held his fourth solo exhibition titled Isisekelo at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. The exhibition featured a recent series of photographs taken across the country and continent.
Integrating ethnographic and autobiographic approaches to image-making, Dhlamini unpacks our subjective relationship to space. In this interview with Omenka, he speaks about retelling South Africa’s histories and about his exhibitions, including his most recent, Isisekelo.
Congratulations on your recent exhibition Isisekelo at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. The show featured recent series of photographs taken across the country and continent. “Integrating ethnographic and autobiographic approaches to image making,” you unpack “our subjective relationship to space.” What inspired this project, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
The project was inspired by a trip I took to the Free State in South Africa when I was denied access to visit the place where I was born and where my great-grandparents and grandparents are buried. This act triggered my childhood memories of growing up in that place during apartheid. My family stayed there for over 50 years, but due to the law, we were not allowed to own the land, and when my uncle passed away, we lost our right to occupy the space.
The main aim of this project is to create a safe space for us as communities to confront the pain that comes with our past, and to learn how we can use this history as a stronger foundation for the present.
This exhibition marks a departure from previous ones such as Umama (2013), Recaptured (2016), iQhawekazi (2018), and iXesha! (2018). The selected works sit between figuration and abstraction, resulting in “images that are both decisive and critical, resisting easy interpretation or categorisation.” How has your oeuvre evolved over time, and why the deviation?
I wouldn’t say my practice has considerably changed [laughs]. I mean, if there has been a shift, it was not a conscious decision; hence, it is difficult for me to realise or notice the change. Photographing intensely as I have, I would say there is perhaps a particular shift in relation to the subject matter that is being explored in the work. I think that it is not really a change but rather a better understanding of myself and the people I photograph. Perhaps they have somehow influenced me, which could be regarded as a change, but overall, I see all my work as one big project that deals with the trauma of the past, future, and present.
What is it about photography that most appeals to you?
For me, photography was just an accessible medium at the time when I first discovered it. Mind you, I was very young when I first held a camera. There is a certain feeling I get when taking photographs; plus, I am not much of a speaker, so photography for me is a conversation starter, be it visually or among people I photograph. To fully answer your question, it appeals to me because of the subtle yet loud effect it has on the reader or viewer.
In works such as Ngaphesheya, Réunion Island (2018), Thupa ya ho ratwa ke Modimo le Batho (2018), and Phantsi komthunzi (II), Réunion Island (2018), your subjects are photographed while lost in thought. How do you approach them? Or do you simply watch, capture, and move on, so as not to tamper with the severity of the emotion being expressed by each person?
For me, it’s always different with each photograph I take. I never plan especially for what Henry Cartier-Bresson calls “the decisive moment.” So I don’t interfere. I let the scene unfold in reference to what I got from the interviews with the people I photograph.
You recently participated in the group exhibition Five Photographers, A Tribute to David Goldblatt to honour the late iconic South African documentary photographer. Please tell us about the experience.
I was introduced to David Goldblatt’s photography when I was doing my first year at the Vaal University of Technology, and I fell in love with his work. In particular, Goldblatt’s approach towards his subject matter captivated me. I later met him in Cape Town during Bonani Africa, and he became my mentor. Getting to know him personally was even more interesting, and I learned a lot from him. He was kind and selfless and had a positive impact on my career. And so, being part of that exhibition honouring him made me feel very humbled. It was an amazing experience to work with the other selected photographers and also John Fleethood, who was the curator. This travelling exhibition has enabled different audiences to engage with my work, including in Mozambique and Lesotho, so far. So this exhibition feels like an extension of Goldblatt’s mentorship; hence, it’s very important to me to mentor other young photographers.
You were the beneficiary of the Edward Ruiz Mentorship in 2011/12. Subsequently, your Umama series was exhibited at the Market Photo Workshop in 2012, and at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, in 2013. How did these events affect your practice?
Thinking of the Edward Ruiz Mentorship brings pleasant memories, as it reminds me of the good times I had with my mentor, Jodi Bieber. It also paved a way for my career at Goodman Gallery. I will forever be grateful to that mentorship and Jodi.
In Isisekelo you go to your birthplace in the province of Free State to see your great-grandfather’s grave; to Soweto to document a common type of semi-detached house found in that region; to Rėunion Island as part of a residency, documenting the detached monuments you saw; and to Cape Town, where you visited the now empty plinth of Cecil John Rhodes, a statue at the University of Cape Town. In your experiences of these separate regions, what collective memories of the locals did you encounter, and how have they employed or suppressed mnemonic devices in retelling histories and reconstructing their identities?
In Cape Town, I found that they have a lot of statues or monuments that represent a collective memory that is very much one-sided. I had a similar experience in Réunion Island. I think the common ground for me in all these places in this project is how collective memory is formed and what is ultimately missing. By unpacking this dynamic, I am able to more directly address the foundations upon which these communities are formed, and, through that, address some of the roots of trauma that continue to exist in the present.
Are there any new projects you would like to share with us?
I like working on many projects at the same time, so while I was doing this project, I also started other projects. You can keep up to date with these by following me on Instagram (@jabulanipatdhlamini).
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