Spot on South Africa: Women Photographers


An interview with Pam Warne, Curator of Photography and New Media at Iziko Museums (South African National Gallery) in Cape Town
EIKON – International Magazine for Photography and Media Art

© EIKON / ÖIP – Österreichisches Institut für Photographie und Medienkunst

Since 1997, The Republic of South Africa has boasted one of the most progressive constitutions worldwide, particularly with regard to women's rights. The nation's "Bill of Rights" not only stipulates the country's Human Rights Commission but also its exemplary Commission for Gender Equality. Nevertheless, beyond bureaucracy and similar to countless other societies 'here and there', not only daily life and statistics but the art world as well reflect persistent gender-specific discrimination to this day.

Regarding the constriction of women's rights during the apartheid regime, a historic look at female photographers in South Africa might offer an insight into how narratives might have been written, neglecting their specific influence. The history of South African (documentary) photography commonly refers to Drum Magazine, which began in 1951 with a focus on black writers and photographers highlighting (glamorous) daily life in a metropolis; the one and only (black) women photographer during that period was Mabel Cetu. The 1970s focused on social documentary photography, but women photographers still remained a minority.

From 1982 onwards, the photo collective Afrapix was established in context with resistance by labour unions and political activists, but developed a "machismo element".[i] The few women participating in Afrapix had connections to women's rights organizations and got involved in feminism like Lesley Lawson or Gille de Vlieg. Most of these few (and often anonymous) female photographers were white, with the exception of Zubeida Vallie und Deseni Moodliar, for example. Finally, the famous Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg provided new career opportunities for (black) women like Zanele Muholi for instance.

© Gille de Vlieg and SAHA / South African History Archive: Jean Sinclair, founder member of Black Sash, Jan Smuts Ave., Johannesburg (1985)

Claudia Marion Stemberger

It seems as if the protagonists of photographic resistance against the excess of violence during Apartheid were almost entirely male? Did documentary photography during that period omit the (historic) living conditions and the social world of women or rather should the obvious gap between reality and deficient (art) historic narratives be considered? And what additional consequences possibly accrued from class distinctions and/or ethnic origin despite masculine hegemony?

Pam Warne

Mabel Cetu may not have been the only black woman photographer working during the 1950s in an apparently exclusively male contingent of photographers at Drum and other magazines such as Zonk. Records are poor and Cetu, for example, is not even listed by the Bailey Archives (which holds the photographic archives from Drum) as having worked for the magazine. She may have been a stringer, and there may have been other contributions by black women photojournalists that we don't know about. Certainly the impression given is that women photographers played a minor part in using their photography against state instituted violence during apartheid up until the 1980s, but the facts can only be confirmed with further research.

But from the 1980s onwards, the presence of women's voices can be consistently heard. Apart from photojournalistic material much of the work produced was more covertly politically oppositional. Photographers of both genders were trying to provide visual evidence of life under apartheid that challenged the propaganda churned out by the Nationalist Government's State Information Office. Many women photographers in the 1980s, like Lesley Lawson, Jenny Gordon, Zubeida Vallie, Ingrid Hudson, Anna Zieminski, explored the hidden lives of ordinary people struggling to survive under iniquitous circumstances. In addition to the black photographers you have already mentioned, there are Primrose Talakumeni and Mavis Mtandeki, who were associated with CAP (Cape Town's Community Arts Project). They were amongst the first African women photographers on the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who photographed women in their own domestic environments.

So, it would not be true to say that documentary photography during that period neglected the social world of women. This was in spite of the voracious appetite of the Western media for "blood, sjamboks, policemen and removals", as Santu Mofokeng has put it for, as he has said, "no newspaper would show a black woman in her house, smiling or having pride". He, and others, wished to present black people not solely victims of an inhumane system, but also as agents of their own lives. With regard to whether the ethnic origins of photographers affected the outcome of photographic encounters during apartheid, this is assuredly so, although class differences were less of an issue then. On the other hand, political affiliations could override skin colour: for example, a black photographer sympathetic to the "comrades" would not have been seen as an "insider" by the "witdoeke" (black vigilantes mobilized in support of apartheid policies).

© Lesley Lawson: Instructions at Gun Training Class (1992), gelatin silver print

Claudia Marion Stemberger

During the past decades, has the photography of these male artists been able to enter the art market and the field of art institutions?

Pam Warne

I don't think that women artists / photographers have taken a back seat; on the contrary, in the decades subsequent to the advent of democracy they have tended to be a lot more experimental and risky in their approaches than their male counterparts. A host of women - Jo Ractliffe, Nontsikelelo Veleko, Lien Botha, Jean Brundrit and artists who use photography like Tracey Rose or Bridget Baker - have explored conceptualist and postmodernist practice and alternative photographic methods to the documentary tradition that has been so strong here. But when it comes to public profiles, international status, and the art market, male photographers and their work seem to be more successfully promoted. Possibly this is a consequence of the taste of the international market for photography from Africa that has a documentary aesthetic.

© Jenny Gordon: Olga Labuschagne, her grandson Quinton and his friend Peter in her council flat, Wentworth, Durban (2003), c-print

Claudia Marion Stemberger

Neither the self-perception of black women nor the common (but hidden) domestic violence was a relevant topic in South African photography during the apartheid decades. Certainly, making art as women is not the equivalent of producing (post)feminist art, it is rather one of multiple options. So how do women photographers focus the situation of women in South Africa since the end of apartheid?

Pam Warne

The number of known black women photographers operating pre-1994 can be counted on one hand, but both male and female photographers dealt with the structural violence visited upon women by apartheid. Gender based violence was rarely a subject for photography, Santu is one of the only people I know of who photographed such incidents during the apartheid era. According to him, no-one other than him dared to show domestic violence because it revealed black people abusing each other, rather than receiving abuse at the hands of whites. It was a case of certain issues critical to black women having been relegated to the margins of "the struggle".

It is true that, subsequent to 1994, women artists / photographers have had both diverse objectives and increased possibilities for artistic expression, and that for women to make art "as women" has lead to multiple trajectories of practice. Zanele Muholi and Jodi Bieber have explored women's experiences of violence - in Zanele's case, the brutal assaults on black lesbian women in townships. This is deemed "corrective rape", and its incidence is frighteningly high.

© Jodi Bieber: Brenda, from the series Real Beauty, digital pigment print, 220 x 162 cm

© Jodi Bieber: Claire, from the series Real Beauty, digital pigment print, 220 x 162 cm

Claudia Marion Stemberger

The black body, and the black female body in particular, in spite of (post-)post/colonial debates, is still regarded as allegory of authenticity and eroticism in north/western popular media. How do women photographers act today to reveal the de-individualizing voyeurism of that colonial perspective? And do you see criticism on specific (pan-)African discrimination as well, for example in view of the problematic damnation of homosexual orientations in (South) Africa?

Pam Warne

The author Patrick Williams put it very succinctly: "After the long history of colonisation, ranging from the territorial to the corporeal, it is hardly surprising that an important aspect of the process of becoming post-colonial should be the reclamation of black bodies". Black women photographers like "Lolo" Veleko, Zanele Muholi, Keorapetse Mosimane and others who have emerged from the Market Photo Workshop have used different tools to do this. These "pioneers" have definitely claimed a space for aspirant women photographers, and I have no doubt that resourceful black women will find the means to fill it.

But explorations into how women engage with other women, and who claim women's spaces - as well as same-sex spaces of love and desire - within the frame of a photograph are not without their dangers in a society which is deeply patriarchal and essentially conservative in spite of its enlightened constitution. Our Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, famously walked out of an exhibition Innovative Women, ironically launched to coincide with Women's Day on 9 August, 2009 at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, just before she was due to open it; after seeing Muholi's work she declared the exhibition "immoral, offensive and going against nation-building".

© Lien Botha: Inside the house the mother did not build (2007), from the series White stick for the Arctic, inkjet on Hahnemuehle paper, 45 x 73 cm


[i] Penny Siopsis: 'On both sides now: Fifty years of South African women behind and in front of the lens', in: Women by Women: 50 Years of Women's Photography in South Africa, edited by Robin Comley, George Hallett and Neo Ntsoma. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2006, pp.9-14, p.10.


© — Claudia Marion Stemberger 2019