06.04 – 29.04.2017
Musa Nxumalo’s exhibition ‘16 Shots’ at SMAC Johannesburg, reveals moments of particular and familiar events. It comprises a selection of sixteen black and white photographs focusing on #feesmustfall protest, youth parties, objects of still life and portraits of individuals. At face value, the images fall into the genre of documentary, reportage, of less excitement visually but meaningful as photo essays of relations between political and social matters of youth.
Partying and protesting are disquieting situations when youth is involved, but Nxumalo’s photographs remove the preoccupation with violence that the media associates with partying and protesting. The exhibition, instead, develops around the body as an exploration of occurrence, familiarity and the encounter of knowledge, often focusing on the aftermath of action.
Some of these are performed photographic moments. Here the two images Toi Toi and Are the fees gonna fall or nah? stand out; with the former being dance and the latter protest. In South Africa toyi-toyi has a long history, linked with mobilising and public concerns that include service delivery, political, community and human rights-based issues. The subjects in Nxumalo’s images appear almost in flight with one foot away from the ground. The camera caught them right in a moment of demonstration that I imagine filled with energy and self-defining expressions. The images are fixed instances of movement and performance.
The photographs are statements of fleeting ephemeral moments of before, during or after the party and protest. They seem to fall between Malik Sidibe’s photographs of parties and socials in Bamako, Mali and Peter Magubane’s photographs of student protest in Soweto. Their images have become narratives of remembering, recording the passed moments of youth of a particular time. Comparatively, Nxumalo is reflecting and absorbing repeating current occurrences. He seems to stand in view of his subjects, the youth. Shooting in the line of fire, he is always in front of the action.
Nxumalo’s shots are residues of moments. For instance, The promise is an image of a placard on the ground, with ‘But you promised free education THOU FAM!’ written on it. It’s a statement of the frustration, determination and humour of the #feesmustfall movement. Left on the ground, the sign becomes part of the long residue of the call for free education.
Nxumalo also documents other forms of residue and inscription. In Ghost I & II, the male subject has tattoos all over his face. These intentional ink lines on the body treat the skin as material. The body in Ghost is the fundamental ground for pain and pleasure; a subject-object of appearance and form.
This is contrasted in images where students shield behind tree hedges during protest while the police threaten their bodies with weapons. Here, there is a multiplicity of subjects, with bodies in contact and existing as an identifiable fields of one individual among other individuals. When photographed, the subjects are past representation of physical actions, devoid of the sound and action of protest (and party).
My longing for sound is hinted at by Nxumalo’s inclusion of a disco ball. As it spins, it creates textures of light over some of the photographs. While the disco ball is a soundless object, its use in parties suggests a room where there is people present. Yet, in a gallery space and in day light, it now resembles an aftermath.
Nxumalo ‘16 Shots’ are visual encounters with bodies during protest and party. They are performances fixed in a photograph, but the action is stranded. The narrative doesn’t allow us to know what came before or after; or what should come before or after.