23 Feb Featured: OoBhuti abatsha – The old and the new by Thandiwe Msebenzi
Photographer and recent Michaelis graduate Thandiwe Msebenzi’s compelling photographic series “OoBhuti abatsha” grapples with the evolution and reappropriation of culture and tradition in a post-colonial society. Her portraits address the Xhosa rite-of-passage ritual of circumcision: her subjects, young men dressed in formal attire having returned from the mountain, stand proudly, owning the clothing and the spaces that were once used against them to reinforce the status quo of the enslaved black man.
In her artist’s statement, Thandiwe explains the importance of the clothing the men wear and the significance of its adaptation:
“The clothing acts as part of a performance of their manhood, as it marks their transformation from boys to men in the eyes of their communities. This attire has changed over time. Colonialism and other global influences have changed the clothing of the oobhuti abatsha and for the past 100 years there has been a strong influence of European culture in the clothes the men wear. The attire of oobhuti abatsha was previously characterised by the tweed jackets and the khaki sombre colours. The old tweed attire was assimilated into the Xhosa culture from colonial and missionary clothes, which resulted in a style that was very western, and yet became so unique to the Xhosa man. The tweed ensemble was a fashion style that was popular in the 1950s and the style remained in the culture right up to the time I was growing up. This dress code became for me to define a Xhosa man.
The project interrogates how we appropriate, shape, give meaning to things and make them our own. Today the tweed outfits are less prominent and we see velvet, linen, peach, blue blazers, big white brimmed hats and check hats that characterise the new men of today. The new men of today take claim and ownership of a new independent fashion “swag” identity. In some cases there is an air of the dandy about the new men.”
The new men are all students at the University of Cape Town, where the project was shot. This environment, with the backdrop of dark wood, stonework and gilded paintings, resonates with ivory tower opulence and strong chiaroscuro light heightens the sense of drama. Her subjects own the space in which they stand, again symbolizing the commandeering of imperialistic culture and empowerment of the individual. Thandiwe’s use of this place and the performance of Xhosa culture within it thus results is a set of images that are not only aesthetically beautiful, but also heavy with convective discourse.
We spoke to the artist about her medium and her daring choice of project.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue photography?
I became interested in taking pictures when those small digital cameras came out. I remember saving my lunch money and every penny I got just so I could buy my first digital camera. I used to take pictures at camps, outings and fun family moments. However I never really considered photography as a medium for making art. In high school I took art as a subject, making paintings of portraits I had taken with my digital camera. I went on to the Michaelis School of fine art, where for the first time I was exposed to photography as a form of making art. As frustrating as pin hole photography was in first year, the magic that happened in the dark room when the photographic images were exposed to the chemicals was enough to sweep me off my feet. From that project onwards I knew I wanted to pursue photography. Being a recipient of the Tierney Fellowship in 2014 also confirmed to me that I was on the right path.
Growing up, were you encouraged creatively? How do you think the environment you grew up in has affected you as a photographer?
Growing up I was definitely encouraged creatively, my mother is a bit of a creative herself. I grew up surrounded by paintings she made, stuck on the walls. I was also very fortunate to attended Waldorf schools where creativity was the core part of learning in all subjects, not just art lessons. Growing up in the Township and attending schools in the suburbs helped me immensely in terms of thinking about the discourse of art and creating images that visualize my thoughts on issues.
How would you describe your style, and how has it developed?
When I began photography I was primarily interested in portraiture. My style has developed a lot. In the beginning I was always very afraid of shooting outdoors; I preferred shooting indoors where I could control the light. Having worked a year on the project “ooBhuti abatsha: the old and the new”, and shooting outdoors, I have found a lot of new possibilities. Working outdoors, I no longer had a controlled environment and instead had to deal with the outside environment, which had its own structures. This also helped to broaden my thinking around conceptualising work: it added more weight as I was dealing with spaces that carry their own meaning.
The environments in which you place your subjects speak of strong historical and colonial narratives. What do these scenes represent for you?
The space in which I worked in definitely echoes a colonial past, but my work very much exists in the present. The structures are buildings from UCT, a learning institute and also a contested space in terms of its origins: the land once belonged to the Khoi of the Cape. The spaces don’t stand alone but are occupied by men who do not just stand, but also take ownership of the space. We sadly have a history of slavery, colonialism and oppression of the black race in this country. I was very much aware of this history in the making of the work. The University in the past was also not previously accessible to the black man. The work echoes the past but remains in the present where the black man takes ownership and is not a victim of European imperialism.
Do you believe cultural integration is possible? Or will it always end in either cultural assimilation or judgement and persecution of other non-dominant cultures?
The way the English enjoy their tea, you would swear they invented it. Tea is very much integrated in the English culture even though it came from India. Cultural assimilation and integration in a global world is inevitable. Of course powerful systems may undermine the existence of other cultural practices, such as the change in the clothing of the initiates, which has had colonial influence. However, the power is taken back as soon as the people start to make these new imposed cultures as their own. The new men (initiates) are a good example in that they use what was once used to oppress them (colonial material) in our days by adding their own swag and personalities, making a culture of their own.
Male circumcision is quite a taboo topic, and an interesting one to take on as a woman. What made you choose this as the focus of your work?
I began the project with an interest in the attire of the new men, how it had changed over time and what it had been influenced by. As I progressed with the project I started to look at the woman’s role in initiation. I realized how for me as a Xhosa woman initiation was something both personal and removed. Yes, it is taboo to be working with initiation as a woman as it is a territory known to be exclusively for men. However the culture does not entirely exclude women. There are events that women take part in during initiation process and when the men come back. Women stand in their own right as very important figures in initiation.
What do you see for yourself and your art looking forward?
I believe that art talks and I believe in art that fulfills a purpose. I grew up in one of the most crime ridden townships in Cape Town, where most teenagers use weapons to express themselves. They have exceptional talents in mugging and handling guns, because society has offered them nothing but broken dreams and insufficient truth about who they are what they are capable of. Our educational institutes exclude those who are not in their heads, but in their hands. These are concerns I carry as young, black, privileged university academic with a degree in fine art. My future plans involve a tangible and active participation as an artist in social consciousness.
I graduated from Michaelis in 2014 and am currently doing a post graduate diploma in teaching at UCT. I am also still working for my Tierney fellowship project as I have started producing more work to extend the dialogue I had begun in the “ ooBhuti abatsha: the old and the new” project.