photographs by Musa N. Nxumalo
Photographer Musa N. Nxumalo explores issues of youth culture and identity in his native South Africa through documentation of the world he inhabits. We met Musa through his collaboration with Yodit Eklund and her African streetwear brand, Bantu Wax. She admired his work in the way that it expressed the same spirit, the same cultural values she tries to communicate in all of the projects Bantu works on.
We pulled together this portfolio of Musa’s work both in the townships of Johannesburg and with the gang from Bantu Wax in Cape Town, showcasing his umbrella theme, Anthology of Youth. Here, Musa speaks of his experiences with photography, trying to capture authentic youth culture, and the value of patience. In the end, we have to agree, purchased experiences don’t count.
“I’m like one of those guys from the hood who really hated school. I am more into being creative and I’ve always been interested in the arts. For me, after school, there were two options. It was either going to be photography or it was going to be music, so when I picked up a camera for the first time, in 2006, and I think once I enrolled in the master class and I got to see how the camera works, how the camera functions, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else other than taking photographs.
Usually I shoot at night and so I do a lot of club hopping so that I can find whatever it is that I am looking for at the time. And so I photograph on this point and shoot film camera, and the reason for that is shooting on a point and shoot, which is analog, people don’t take you that seriously. So every time I come with a big digital camera like a 7D with better grips and on-camera flashes and such, and then they start getting…not intimidated, but they notice you a lot, and then you get the irritating stuff where people pose.
So I find that when I work with the point and shoot they don’t care about me and they continue doing what they do. I work with analog and digital for those reasons. That’s the first reason. The second reason is that I really enjoy the images. You notice that my images are almost like grainy. They have that grainy feel. So for fill-ins because of that, and when I shoot in digital I push up my ISO to 400 or 600 just to get a little bit of that grain and get that consistency in all of my images and then you don’t see if it’s analog or digital.
For me, it goes back to this idea of waiting. Before digital cameras, if you think of large format and everything, the photographer had to be patient, they had either one frame or two frames, so they had to be patient and wait and look. With the conversion to digital cameras, people are in a hurry. Also how people interact with digital cameras is very quick. People create pictures that they can put on Instagram and maybe show off their lifestyle, or create a lifestyle, you know, which is neither good nor bad.
With my work, it’s like, patience, or waiting, for me is very important. I could get these guys anyway, I could visit them in their homes when they are dressed up and preparing to go out, and then we could make photographs, and put them on Instagram, and then get likes. But waiting and then understanding that what I am looking for is not when they are aware of their Louis Vuittons or whatever, it is that they are drinking, but it is to get them at that moment when they have lost themselves. When they are back and they are human again.
I know when I get to the club at 7 or 8, when people come in, they notice me with my camera and they know that there is the guy with a camera that is around. So finally, when it is 11 or 12, and I am flashing, they don’t mind, because they have seen me around. So when I see someone who is dancing, it’s like I’ve waited for that moment. I think for me, from the photographer’s point of view, it is this idea of photography where you have to wait and look.
For my collaboration with Yodit Eklund and Bantu Wax, it became a conversation about ideas. So for almost a year or more we had been talking about youth culture and talking more about Bantu and she even collected my work. So we chatted now and then, maybe once a month, and then she opened a store in Cape Town and wanted me to shoot for them.
Everything I shoot, even if it is fashion, it is always entrenched in my work. She kept saying, 'You should do it in your style. I don’t want it to be a normal look book.' So eventually, we got the vibe right, and I just captured kids hanging out, having beers and being themselves. Patience. I’m capturing life that is around me and the culture that is true.
The culture that is dominant in the townships in Johannesburg, people want to flex a lot, especially the black middle class that drive expensive German cars. I feel like they are always big shots, with Mercedes and BMW’s, and then when they go out to a club, they go and sit in VIP sections with bottles of champagne and pretty girls.
And a lot of young people from the townships who are not exposed to the alternatives, they aspire to it! It’s what’s on TV, it’s what they see in magazines. You never see an alternative, where people are people, or kids are kids, and they go to a club solely for the purpose of dancing, or meeting a girl, without having to show how much money you have in your bank account, or whatever it is that you’re driving.
And so I think, for me, with the way I photograph and the people I photograph, it’s like wanting to show that alternative. I get invited to events where they ask me to come and they give me VIP and all access, and I find myself in the crowd, because that is where I feel like the party is happening and people step on one another, and spill drinks on one another, and it’s no problem. So I feel like my generation, we are caught up in this idea of wanting to get successful financially just so that I can show that I am somebody also.
If you look at my images, I hardly photograph people flashing jewelry. It is just people dancing and it is people in a way that shows an alternative image to what you will usually see in the news about the townships. It is always about being down and out, and the townships being devastated, and young people being unemployed. When the government is campaigning, they always say that the people in the townships are struggling and we have to save them. So in a way, the township are always on the negative side of things, and they always have to be down and out, and they always have to be these people that have to be saved. We are governed by a black government and they still use the same tactics that the white supremacy used.
And so it is like when you are in the township everybody wants to save you. The stereotype is that you want to be saved. I HATE THAT. Even when I was still in school, not having an idea of what was happening in the world politically, I hated when someone wanted to save me or help me. I was like, 'Fuck it. Let me just be here and then I will find a way and I will get out.'
That is the attitude that I see in my images when I look at them. It is this idea of not wanting to show young, black youth as down and out. It’s like, 'Fuck it, I can do it, just give me a bit of time. Or let me be in this process where I am down and out, and then I am going to find myself, and from there I will do what I am supposed to do.'
So what I am fighting for, or what I want to photograph, or what I want to show, is this idea of taking the youth, or taking the black people in the townships, out of this bubble of always wanting to be saved. Or thinking that living means you have to be wealthy. It happens a lot in South Africa, or in Africa as a whole.
The fact is that our people think success is, like, living in mansions. And the media, what they portray as the people who are important, it is the people who are flexing and have money. It’s not creative. You hardly see a visual artist who is making incredible work on TV or on everyday media, like newspapers and stuff. You always see the same guys who are musicians who are now making it big, so I am tying to create an alternative to that.”