Grad Guide 2020: Ranji Mangcu

Johannesburg-based multidisciplinary artist Ranji Mangcu, who specializes in photography and videography, notes her mother’s photographic archive from the 80s to the late 2010s as her earliest memory of and interaction with the medium. Now, having completed her Bachelor of Fine Art degree the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Mangcu uses portraiture to engage with questions of identity – specifically, the role of the camera in the historical representations of identities and the contemporary consequences of this. We caught up with Mangcu to chat about growing within the medium, themes of interest in her work and her final year project IQHINA.

Ranji Mangcu

What and where did you study? What was your experience like? 

I studied fine art at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. My experience at Michaelis was difficult at first. A combination of imposter syndrome and the disorientation of early adulthood made my early university years anxious and somewhat unmoored. Somewhere in the middle however, I discovered and began to investigate my relationship with photography, which helped me understand myself as an individual, allowing me more discipline, direction and confidence as an artist. During this time, I met and made friends with amazing people and artists with whom I will hopefully be close forever. My experience allowed me to grasp how instrumental and empowering it can be to form supportive spaces of engagement with other black women who were navigating the same institution as me.

Why were you drawn to photography and what do you love about the medium?

I have been drawn to photography since early childhood. My interaction with the medium began with the photographic archive that my mother built, spanning from her university years in the 80s to the early 2010s, when photography and archiving became something that people did on their phones. Each photograph was a time-capturing document that collectively formed a repository of memory and self-identification, which – as the only dark-skinned child in my immediate family – gave me a sense of validation. I used the photographs to establish and solidify resemblances, commonalities and shared experiences with my family. In other words, photography became the first medium through which I could see myself represented, and re-shape how I fit into my own family and the world around it, so I latched onto taking and posing for photographic portraits at an early age. I love the way photography can be used as a tool in representation; how it provides a space in which identities and realities can be constructed and essentialized narratives reframed. I love how it can function as an inter-generational, residual document and invoke memories after an event, performance, sub-culture or era in fashion has passed.

Tell us about the work you created during your final year. Any projects that stood out for you?

My final year project is titled IQHINA. Central to it is the idea that the family photographic archive – as an important tool in genealogical research – can function in a similar way to Nguni clan names, which attach us to “invisible lineages” that clash against and, in many ways, transcend the historical colonial erasure of Black South African knowledge. This project was born out of feelings of being unmoored and detached from a family history that existed out of relation to colonialism and Apartheid, and it brought me face-to-face with the wealth of knowledge and self-identification that was left by my grandparents through the archives of photography, language and knowledge-production. Central to the project are the themes of Xhosa-Christian identity, education, and Ginsberg Township – home to both of my parents, Bantu Stephen Biko and his philosophy of Black Consciousness. The part of the project that stands out the most to me are the photographs that I took of my family in the respective uniforms that they wear as scholars, members of the Salvation Army, Anglicans and more. This process allowed me to inject my interest in fashion photography into the project. 

How would you describe your style to someone who’d never seen your work before?

I love constructing environments in a way that is stripped down, so that the subject becomes the biggest contributor to any photograph that I take. So while the backdrop is constructed, the subject’s play and identity foreground my photography, and I’m privileged enough to be there to capture that moment of power, confidence, vulnerability, or whatever the subject would like to convey. In essence, my style is quite spontaneous and engaged, yet intimate and simplistic. I also tend to draw from art historical conventions, aligning them with a contemporary Black iconography that feels familiar to me, in order to present the possibility of Blackness being in alignment with monumentality and beauty.

What are you currently interested in exploring through your work? 

In my third year at Michaelis, I made a body of work titled NOMDAKAZANA, which explored the intersectional stigma against dark skin through the lens of representation. My current aim is to further the line of research that I started with this project and interrogate the relationship between fashion image, hyper-visibility vs. invisibility, and historical representations of Black womanhood. Central to my exploration of these themes is an interrogation of the history of the fashion image, and its relationship with art historical portraiture. 

What are your plans for 2021?

My plans for the year of 2021 involve a lot of learning, experimenting with my medium and gaining exposure and experience as a photographer and creative outside of the academic space of Michaelis. 

Follow @ranjimangcu on Instagram.

Grad Guide is an annual series from Between 10and5, profiling some of South Africa’s most exciting creative graduates across the fields of fashion, art, photography and design. Find the full 2020 Grad Guide here

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