From the earliest daguerreotype, the self has been a favoured subject of photographers, and portraits have fascinated us with their attempts to capture beauty, stature or transience. Photography democratised the process of seeing yourself as the concrete result of an artistic vision, and we’re still not tired of the results.
At the heart of portraiture is the question of identity, and many South African artists turn the lens on others or themselves to unpack troubled histories, explore personal narratives or reconstruct realities. Here are some of our finest explorers of the ever-shifting landscape that is the human face.
It was her 2004 exhibition, Visual Sexuality, that brought Zanele Muholi to national prominence as she publicly showcased black female same-sex intimacy for the first time in South Africa. At the centre of her work, the artist and activist explores the implications of being black and gay in South Africa, which are all too often violent and tragic.
Her influential ongoing series, Faces and Phases, aims to create visibility for the black LGBTI community through a growing portrait archive of members in South Africa and beyond. Muholi extends this awareness to gay beauty pageant contestants in her series Brave Beauties, which celebrates the body and politics of expression through portraits. In these, Muholi acts as a documenter, allowing her subjects to present themselves according to their own self image.
She is also never afraid to turn the lens on herself to become both the creator and the subject. In ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ (meaning ‘Hail, the Dark Lioness’), Muholi presents herself as various characters, personas and archetypes, challenging viewers to question their desire to gaze at her black figure and in turn confronting the politics of race and pigment in the photographic sphere.
Despite starting out as a documentary photographer, Pieter Hugo’s involvement in his surroundings and engagement with his subjects extends deep into the realm of classic portraiture. Provocative, challenging and beautiful in their execution, Hugo’s portraits of people on the margins of society have both captivated and piqued audiences around the world.
He is often criticised for sensationalising ‘the other’, but his work has a brutal honesty to it that is supported by an immersive working method. In Hugo’s photographs, the subjects are always complicit in the construction of the image through careful arrangement and poses. There is nothing natural or chance about his photographs, and Hugo doesn’t try to conceal this fact. Instead, he deliberately plays into it, creating juxtaposition between the formal composition of the images and the subjects within them.
Simultaneously intensely personal and universal, Thania Petersen’s photographs address themes of history and identity, and how the two are intricately intertwined. Using self-portraiture as a powerful tool to unearth and articulate lost or marginalised histories, her 2015 series, I Am Royal, retraces her family’s Cape Malay heritage, which descends from Tuan Guru, a prince from Tidore who was imprisoned on Robben Island in the late 1700s and is now regarded as the father of Islam in South Africa.
By inserting herself as the protagonist in this narrative and using costume and props to tell the story, Petersen stakes her claim to her royal heritage and personal identity, casting off the labels ascribed by apartheid. In these images, Petersen invokes her ancestors, symbolically reconstructing them in her own form.
By presenting the viewer with that which is unseen, she highlights important jarring parts of South Africa’s history that have long been overlooked or forgotten.
For Mohau Modisakeng, self-portraiture serves as a means of internalising and transforming traumatic pasts. By casting himself as the subject in his highly stylised and dramatic work, he avoids the trope of objectifying the black body and instead becomes a conduit to re-enact histories of violence, labour and mourning.
Performance is central to Modisakeng’s work, and each image reads as a moment or still from a larger ritual – such as mourning in his exhibition Inzilo or consulting the ancestors in Ditaola. His visual language comprises an allegorical network of signs and symbols, including pangas, leather aprons, guns, whips, sceptres and white doves, and these become the ‘text’ through which he speaks back to the violence of colonialism and apartheid.
For Modisakeng, the idea of the personal being political is key. As such, the question of biography becomes a core theme in his work, as he explains in an interview, ‘A personal history has always been an important narrative device… In my work, I am fundamentally concerned with the effects of violent histories on the black body and our collective consciousness.’