Plastic Crowns: a narrative as self-portrait by Phumzile Khanyile

Phumzile Khanyile is a Market Photo Workshop graduate originally from Soweto. She is the recipient of the 2015 Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship in Photography, a developmental platform and opportunity to continue activism through photography in the spirit of late South African documentary photographer Gisèle Wulfsohn. This afforded the young artist the opportunity to produce a body of work under the guidance of renowned photographer and film maker Ayana V. Jackson

What followed was Plastic Crowns.

A series of self portraits, Plastic Crowns contains a strong narrative expressed through a striking visual language. Phumzile’s work explores aspects of women’s lives through evocations of her own experiences; breaking down social taboos in its explicit exploration of sexual politics. Their is little distinction between her craft and her own life in the images, which read like a private journal of informal snap shots made public. Her gritty aesthetic, characterized by harsh shadows, soft focus and lush textures, lends her work it’s notable emotive quality.

Her project is currently on display at the Market Photo Workshop gallery in Newtown. Read through our interview with the artist and see a selection of arresting photographs, on show, below.

How did you first get into photography?

My mom and my sister encouraged me to try photography because they liked the images I would take, personally photography wasn’t something I had seriously considered. I guess it came to me.

How has your personal life and background influenced you as an artist?

My background becomes the backdrop of my work, it becomes both the source of reference as well as departure. I think it is important for me to have some little piece of myself in my work because it keeps me honest when creating.

What is the idea behind your body of work, Plastic Crowns? Who or what inspired it?
The idea behind Plastic Crowns is really about ignoring what others say you are or acting how people say you ought to. It is about consciously challenging gender stereotypes as well as the stigma around sexual preferences. I also tackle the idea of promiscuity and how I view it as ones right to preference and candidness, as opposed to it being under the shadow of low morals.

Why did you choose to experiment with self-portraiture? Would you describe your work as autobiographical? 

I’m never comfortable with using other people because I then enforce my ideas of representation onto them. Self portraits help me understand being in someone else’s shoes. I would definitely call it autobiographical because my work borrows from my own personal story, memory and perspective.

What type of process do you go through in setting up and taking these photographs? 

I feel my way through my images. What is important is knowing what it is I’m trying to say. My style in creating is around metaphors and having different symbols that stand for something, so for example, the balloons in Plastic Crowns are a symbol for different sexual partners. Once I establish the emotion I am going through, I start formulating what the image should look like. I find the process often frustrating because recreating something that exists only in my head is hard in reality. To be honest, equipment takes up less space in my brain, I believe my vision will happen regardless of what I am using. The one thing I will mention is that I used a canon digital camera and I placed a head cloth in front of the lens so the images could have a film-like effect.

Can you share some of the valuable insights you acquired through your mentor-ship with renowned American photographer and filmmaker Ayana.V.Jackson?
Ayana really allowed me how to create freely and at my own pace, I remember being nervous the first time I met her, I was going through a creative block and simply could not photograph. She told me not to rush the process, to relax and just live my life and it will soon come to me. And it did. She has really helped me grow when it comes to professionalising my work and myself. I’m very shy so she would often put me on the spot around other professionals so that I could get used to speaking confidently and trusting my vision and work. She definitely put me in boot camp for speaking up and for myself.

What do you hope people will take from this series? What impact do you hope that this body of work will have? 

I want this body of work to be experienced for exactly what it is. I want people to also have a moment to reflect for themselves.

What are you most excited about for 2017?

I am already working on a new body of work so I’m excited for new opportunities, I would also love to travel a lot more this year. I think there’s always pressure to do as much as you can when you’re young and I’m at a point where I just want a moment to reflect and re-energise and come back ready to work again.


All photos taken by Phumzile Khanyile from the series Plastic Crowns.

Between 10 and 5