As the recipient of the Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship in Photography, Sydelle Willow Smith began developing a body of work titled Soft Walls. The series of images seeks to deal with the relationships between migrated African nationals and South Africans; revealing the subtle ways in which individuals make sense of their experiences.
To challenge the dominant perceptions wherein prejudices towards “foreign” Africans still exist, Sydelle has sought to portray a different reality – one in which the perceived walls between migrants and locals have been broken down through the unlikely, or unexpected, bonds they have formed.
We spoke to Sydelle about her early influences, the process of creating Soft Walls and what the body of work means to her:
Growing up, was there ever any indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
When I was eight I was convinced I would become a nuclear scientist because I thought the periodic table of elements was great, but my enthusiasm died quite quickly for it when I actually had to do science as a subject at school.
I was always drawing, on paper or on furniture. I carved my name into the family piano once – my mother loved that. Art, not vandalism, was always something celebrated in our house. My sister is a musician and my brother is a filmmaker/writer. Imagination was cherished, and books were always being read by everyone all the time. We were always encouraged to pursue our creativity.
When I was about 11 my parents gave me a point and shoot film camera for Christmas (like any good Jewish parents) and I was hooked from then on. Always photographing my friends, my family, playing around, chasing shadows, falling in love with it. When I was around 16, I entered some pictures I took around Fordsburg of people selling meilies on the street into a newspaper competition, and I won a digital camera. From then on it was always with me till it was stolen in Peru one day at the organisation where I was volunteering.
When did you realise that a career in film and photography was something that you wanted to, and could pursue?
My father was a darkroom technician/printer at a commercial advertising lab (CityLab). I remember going to Museum Afrika as a young child, and my mother showing me the darkroom installation, and being fascinated that my father worked in such a space.
When I was sixteen I began taking courses at The Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, a prestigious documentary photography institution that was started by David Goldblatt. I started by photographing the bands in the local Punk Scene, where I used to hang out in Joburg and Pretoria. Being small, I could hide behind the drums and take pictures of the musicians thrashing about. The first image that got published was a double page spread of a band called The Vendetta Cartel in Blunt Magazine. It was a great moment for me, I was super chuffed – I think I still have it somewhere.
After doing more courses at The Market Photo Workshop in 2007 I decided to go to University to get a degree in film and anthropology. My late Aunt, Jessica Kuper, was an anthropologist, and I was always fascinated by the places she had lived and the people she had met. I guess the combination of photography, film and anthropology fits my character so well, as I am naturally curious about peoples’ lives and their stories, particularly people who face great struggle in terms of South Africa’s’ socioeconomic issues. Through understanding their struggles I learn a little bit more about the complexities of my privilege and the common threads that bind us together.
The first photo essay I did was about domestic workers living on the top floor in small rooms of penthouse apartments in Houghton, where my late grandmother lived, called Life Between Two Floors.
How does your background continue to influence and inform you?
I was born in Johannesburg in 1987, I grew up in a liberal Jewish household, I went to a Montessori School and ended up completing my matric through Damelin Correspondence (Home Schooling). At the age of 18 I left for England and Scotland to backpack, help look after my Aunt with alzheimer’s and work in bars. I spent some time living in Peru, voluntarily teaching photography in a fair-trade organisation. I ended up being a cleaner in Edinburgh and the experience influenced the first photographic body of work I completed when I was studying.
When I returned to South Africa I enrolled in a course at The Market Photo Workshop. In 2011 I graduated from the University of Cape Town with an Honors Degree in Social Anthropology focusing on Visual Anthropology and the politics of place making in Blikkiesdorp through participatory visual research.
What else would you cite as influences?
The cruel hard gift of having a South African birthright first and foremost. Trying to understand my position, the way people process their experiences and find hope. Empathy.
In terms of image makers, there are so many incredible photographers out there but ones that immediately come to my mind are Stephen Shore, Robert Frank, Alec Soth, Susan Meirellas, David Alan Harvey and locally Dave Southwood, David Goldblatt, Dean Hutton, Alexia Webster, Zanele Muholi. Film is a very big inspiration – especially the films of Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The writings of Johnny Steinberg, Ben Okri, Arundathi Roy, Jonathan Frazer, Tom Robbins. The music of Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Toure, Amadou and Mariam, too many actually to name.
One of the biggest inspirations is that instinctual feeling when you know you are present in a beautiful moment whether that be happy or sad, and you have the underlying need to document it, to express it, to reinterpret it and reshare it with the world.
Your most recent body of work, Soft Walls, seeks to deal with convivial relationships between migrated African nationals and South Africans. How did you initially become interested in this?
Firstly I would like to talk about the title, Soft Walls. I look at in terms of the access that it allows me into spaces I wouldn’t necessarily go otherwise. Our country is so divided, there are so many walls: class and race and everything, all the -isms. Having a camera gives me the self-confidence to say “Hey, I’m here, and I want to take some pictures.” And also people, I feel, do let you in a little bit more if you’re interested in their stories. So you get to jump between all the different spaces. That’s the personal reflection of the meaning.
In relation to the body of work it suggests the walls people put up, the stereotypes, the prejudices, the things that divide us can be rendered soft, malleable, and can shift – like these multinational friends and families in the project I have been working with. They are showing there are big exceptions to the generalised perception that South Africa is only xenophobic. Not to ignore the realities of xenophobia but rather flip the coin for a moment, and provide an alternative narrative of hope and place making through an empathetic lens.
When I was a second year student at UCT I was the photo editor of a current affairs student magazine, The Cape Town Globalist. Myself and a student reporter from Nigeria visited some of the refugee camps after the May 2008 xenophobic attacks, particularly in Soetwater and Bluewaters. I was struck by the ways people made a “home” for themselves in the temporary space, as well as the difficulties they had faced in getting to South Africa and what their future in the country held. The series was called No Place to Call Home.
During my Honors Thesis, these themes inspired me in a temporary relocation area in Delft, colloquially known as Blikkiesdorp. I worked with four South African youths from the “camp” using video and photography. Together we mapped experiences of the ways home and community were made and broken within the space, the project was called Making Home in Temporary Spaces.
When I graduated from my Honors Degree in 2011 I was commissioned by the civic organisation, P.A.S.S.O.P, in partnership with the Solidarity Peace trust to make a short documentary, Perils and Pitfalls, about migrant’s experiences of Home Affairs and Deportation in South Africa. This experience has led me to my current photo/video project which is funded by a grant from The Market Photo Workshop, called the Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship.
As an Anthropology student you are taught culture is a construct that is used in some ways as a political resource, in a similar vein to nationality and the imagined but imaginary nature of borders, race and ethnicity. I am interested in visually depicting these ideas, and conversations, freed from an academic context. Global village aside, countries’ borders exist and regulate access and control. I am interested as an artist (visual commentator), about how a country like South Africa with its history of control and separate development handles this influx of people from across Africa. Specifically in relation to a sense of “ubuntuism”, or “panafricanness”.
Inherently I think my interest in migration is deeply rooted in my own personal history as a Jewish person. My great grandparents arrived off the boat from Lithuania in South Africa and made home for themselves in a new place, granted they were given opportunities not afforded to black or coloured South Africans by the Apartheid Government. It is also influenced by the identity neurosis South Africa, generally speaking, seems to suffer from. How can we accept new people making place here if we haven’t learnt to accept one another yet?
Creating the photographs that make up Soft Walls, what did you learn or come to realise?
Through my work I investigate a personal interest that stems from growing up in a divided country and the need to answer the questions: What does it mean to be “a foreigner” in South Africa? How is life lived in the everyday? Are theoretical and nationalist stereotypes reproduced within the walls of suburban sprawls? What does it really mean to be from somewhere else? How do we root our routes and make home for ourselves?
In this body of work, rather than focus on the insider/outsider dichotomy of foreigner and local I wanted to engage with stories of people living together across nationality lines, viewed through a convivial lens – imagining and reinforcing a new landscape in South Africa that blurs the lines between local and foreigner, rendering the walls, soft. In Soft Walls my lens focuses on the everyday lives of people who are making forms of belonging. The people in the images could be South African. Only the context gives their “foreignness” away.
I wear different caps on different days. Journalist, Anthropologist and Artist. Inherently, I am interested in stories of hope, in stories of individuals and not of the masses. I believe it is important to collect and share alternative archives that offer new perspectives through images that do not dictate but merely suggest and are open to the audience’s own interpretations.
My work depicts fragments of the lives of young parents and friends from multinational backgrounds – settling in new spaces, living in the suburbs of Cape Town such as Maitland and Claremont and the outskirts like Strand and Grabouw. Like many migrants, sailors and explorers before them; they arrived at the Cape of Good Hope seeking new lives on this beautiful peninsula with its dark underbelly drenched in a complex socio-economic history.
Over the past year and a half I have experienced aspects of the everyday lives of immigrants and South Africans who contrast the notions of xenophobia or nationality through the friendships and partnerships they have made. The story of foreignness is multidimensional where memories fracture, reinforce and fade. Where people lose their national identities, labels and begin to live intertwined yet still apart from the wider intolerable world. My hope is for these photographs to become memories, future nostalgic reminisces for those photographed – archives of their existence that declare they are alive – hung up and framed in their living rooms as testaments to their triumph of having “fitted in”.
Tell us about your mentorship with Dave Southwood and what you gained from this experience.
Dave Southwood was an incredibly patient, intelligent, and humorous person to be mentored by. He was completely honest, made time for me, and allowed me to figure things out on my own without having to spoon feed me – I really felt honoured to be taught by him during the process. I spent many Thursday evenings at his house discussing my work, his work, South African Photography and documentary photography from further afield. Having someone to offer an alternative vision of your work is integral to understanding what you want your work to be about and find your voice.
Also, I would not have been able to complete Soft Walls without the support of the Gisele Wulfsohn mentorship and the crit sessions held at The Market Photo Workshop with, amongst others, Jodi Bieber, Jonathan Torgovonik, Buyaphi Mdlele, Andrew Tshabangu, Thenji Nkosi and Dorothee Kreutzfeld. The grant allowed me time to do this project, and motivated me to continue it. I also learnt so much from showing my work to other people, and the curation process was something I had never experienced before – reading images in relation to a gallery space was confusing and eye opening. I do not think photographers would be able to do a lot of important work that is being done out there without continued support.
How do you think your style or approach has developed since you first started out?
The long term nature of the project and the style of immersion allowed me to slow down and think more before I photographed. When I am working as a photographer I am often documenting events where I don’t have to think as much about why I am taking a particular image, so the process has definitely made me grow as a photographer by teaching me to slow down, be patient and wait for the moments that encapsulate the thoughts I am trying to visually get across to the audience.
What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far?
Seeing the work up in a public space on the Sea Point promenade for the ART54 project is definitely one of the most rewarding experiences of the project – as the everyday public can engage with the work. Secondly, the public program of the AVA exhibition which was developed by curator Brenton Maart to try and make the gallery space more accessible to a wider audience, and use the art as a tool for dialogue and interactive engagement. For this, I organised that a piece called Centre be performed for the public at the gallery. Centre is an ongoing collaboration between the Scalabrini Centre and performance artist Rosa Postle-Waithe, and the work reconsiders everyday encounters between people in the city and the difference between thinking about the city as a concept and the real life experiences of it. Through a frustrated striving for complete and ideal introductions, the performers explore clichés around “good” first impressions. The performance becomes all the more poignant as the performers are refugees, thus addressing the stereotypes, biases and tensions that mar daily social interactions of many marginalised individuals. After they performed the piece, members of the Kaos Pilots School from Denmark facilitated a world cafe styled discussion around the themes the piece evoked. It was very exciting to see the way the work from Soft Walls could be used in a multi-layered and more participatory approach than merely having it consumed by a “passive” audience engaging with it on gallery walls.
Alternately, what has been the most challenging?
Staying motivated to finish the project when at times it felt like it was not becoming the work I had envisioned. Learning to be patient and let go and let the work grow. Now, finishing the work and feeling like it has communicated what I was seeing fragments of – although not necessarily translating into what the people in some of the photographs had in mind, as they each have their own vision/stories and my view is partial and subjective. I am not speaking for the people in the images as they have their own voices, I am merely offering a fragmented mirror of worlds I was invited into and tried to understand as someone who does not experience the same immigration labelling and divisions in South Africa – but also feels like an outsider often as a ‘mlungu’ from over the seas.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?
At the moment I am working on an exhibition with The African Centre for Cities called City Divided. I have been commissioned to produce photographic material that will provide the relevant visual context for the narrative stories and themes for each individual subject and their immediate community and environments. It takes the form of 10 photo essays with 8 writers, that will focus on the multi-layered complexities of Cape Town through the stories of a hostel dweller in Langa, a psychiatrist in Mitchells Plain, a hiphop artist/activist in Kuilsrivier, a gangster turned crime prevention leader in Hanover Park, and an emerging farmer in Phillipi to name a few of them. It’s a very exciting project, watch this space!
The solo exhibition of Soft Walls is showing at AVA Gallery until 5 June, while the public exhibit of the works at Sea Point promenade (part of the ART54 project) will be showing until October this year.
Also in October, Sydelle will be relocating to Oxford for nine months to complete a Msc in African Studies on a scholarship from Laurie Dippenaar and The Oppenheimer Memorial Fund. The purpose of this is to research the methodology for The Sunshine Cinema – a mobile, solar-powered cinema that is enabling knowledge and skills sharing from one community to another.
For more information, visit: www.sydellewillowsmith.com