Justin Dingwall: Questioning Perspectives of African Beauty
What really is African beauty? Is it characterised by the tone or flawlessness of the skin? This is the question that South African photographer Justin Dingwall has continuously explored in his work.
Justin Dingwall is a successful Johannesburg-based commercial photographer who is well known for commenting on social issues. He picked up his first camera when he was 18 years old and later enrolled at Tshwane University of Technology. He graduated in 2004, after which he launched his photography career. Since then, he has received numerous accolades and gained much local and international acclaim as a contemporary artist investigating unpopular issues.
Like many other photographers and artists, Dingwall explores personal projects alongside his professional ones. The decision to nurture his visual arts projects became an avenue to explore the unusual and uncharted, a move that gave Dingwall the platform to create photography series that are emotionally charged and that challenge societal notions. If you visit his website, you may find only a few projects listed. That is because he chooses to focus on a certain topic, which he investigates deeply. Below are some of his most well-known projects thus far:
In ‘Albus,’ Dingwall explores the aesthetics of albinism, a rare hereditary condition that affects melanin production, resulting in little to no pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. Here, Dingwall captures something not conventionally perceived as beautiful, especially in Africa, where albinism is prevalent.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates of those in Sub-Saharan Africa affected by albinism varies from 1 in 5,000 to 1 in 15,000. In many parts of the world, and particularly in Africa, the facts about albinism are often obscured by folklore, prejudice, and false assumptions. In Tanzania and Burundi, living without skin pigmentation can mean being hunted by witch doctors, who believe albino limbs carry supernatural powers and sell dismembered body parts on the black market. In South Africa, the threat to life is far less dire, but still albino children face schoolyard taunts and discrimination and are sometimes viewed as a curse upon their families. With the ‘Albus’ project, Dingwall attempts to subvert this narrative.
For this project, the artist collaborated with model Sanele Xaba and advocate Thando Hopa, resulting in a series of distinct images. ‘Albus’ materialised over the course of a two-year friendship between the photographer and Hopa, a passionate advocate for wider awareness and acceptance of albinism. Dingwall met Xaba when the model contacted him on Facebook, hoping to participate in the project and address a topic that remains forbidden in many cultures.
Artist and muses worked together to dismantle the taboos surrounding albinism and simultaneously turn the general conventions and perceptions of beauty. Maintaining his trademark style, which effectively combines precision with drama, Dingwall was able to produce a provocative, emotionally charged, and undeniably beautiful body of work. Motivated by his desire to explore the road less travelled, the artist finds unusual beauty in unexpected places, while aiming to subvert centuries of bigotry.
Dingwall uses water as a symbol to reflect society’s perceptions. Water suggests self-reflection and is often used in literature as a symbol of change. In his work In with the New, he reinterprets the old English saying as “out with old ideologies and in with a new perspective.” Snakes are also used to represent transformation (as in the shedding of old skin to make way for new skin) and to represent healing (as in medical discourse). The symbols of light and dark are a reflection of his medium. Dingwall uses the characteristic nature of photography to capture a unique frame of reference. He paints with light in such a way that it represents the revealing of the unseen and emphasises the unenlightened state of mind attending previous misconceptions.
A Seat at the Table
Here, Dingwall collaborates with South African model Moostapha Saidi on a series of images that speak to themes of perspective and of perception. ‘A Seat at the Table’ was informed by Saidi’s experiences living with vitiligo, also a condition which affects skin pigmentation. Taken at face value, the images showcase a man with missing skin pigment, but on closer inspection, the ideas and symbolism represented are more than skin deep.
The idiom which titles the project speaks of having a position as a member of a group that makes decisions. As Saidi’s condition often resulted in people objectifying him and excluding him for his appearance, Dingwall wanted to represent a metaphorical opportunity to have a voice, be heard, seen, and, therefore, change people’s preconceptions.
Brightly coloured backdrops contrast with Saidi’s dual-tone skin in each of the images. Dingwall uses precious stones and googly eyes as a commentary on the way that Saidi is objectified by strangers who stare, point, and see him as “other” because of the way he looks.
As ‘A Seat at the Table’ raised awareness for vitiligo, it also helped Saidi pursue his dream of becoming a model—he is now signed with one of the top agencies in South Africa. This year, Dingwall plans to create more images for the series, and it is likely he will be collaborating with another muse.
Fly by Night
For this body of work, Dingwall continues his ongoing investigation of beauty in difference, specifically focusing on xenophobia, diaspora, and migration across the African continent and the negative stigmas that are often associated with these constructs.
The black swan is a central symbol in these images, depicting beauty in difference as well as acceptance of diversity. Simultaneously, the black swan also evokes the black swan theory, “a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.” The term is based on an ancient saying which presumed that black swans did not exist—until black swans were discovered in the wild, and the saying had to be reconstructed. Just as people were of the belief that black swans were a myth until proof of their existence was found, these images look to raise awareness about and shift the perception of issues such as xenophobia.
Further additions to the series include images with epic birds created out of ordinary sheets of white paper. Working with local creative Vanessa Snyders, Dingwall uses these birds to continue to explore and address the topic.
His ‘When Will You Return’ series carries a similar tone, as it reflects on “the perception of the unforeseen and unexpected calamity that occurred in South Africa during the violent reaction to the influx of foreigners in 2015.” While some viewed the incident as a predictable reaction to the pressures placed on society, others viewed it with shock and disbelief. The aim of this project was to help process the societal issues around the incident and increase the awareness that society needs to change its perceptions.
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