Of Soul and Joy’s 10th anniversary celebration exhibition Uhambo at Umhlabathi Gallery in Newtown paints picture of an inspired community despite poverty

Uhambo which features the work of young photographers from the Johannesburg East Rand township of Thokoza is on from January 21-February 24, 2023, Umhlabathi Gallery, 2 Helen Joseph Street, Newtown, Johannesburg (next to the Bus Factory).

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

He is barely a teen. But one of his career options is already taking shape.

“I used the opportunity to honour my late grandmother. She died last year in April. I took pictures of grannies in my neighbourhood. This way I am paying tribute to my grandmother. I enjoyed the experience very much.” Kemo Rampedi told CITYLIFE/ARTS in an interview. He is the youngest of emerging photographers drawn from the community of Thokoza, some of whose photographs are part of an exhibition that opened on Saturday 21 January 2023 at Umhlabathi Gallery, 2 Helen Joseph Street in Newtown, Johannesburg. Young people came in big numbers and swarmed this space, started by a group of photographers last year.

Umhlabathi a space that houses studios by individual photographers as well as a gallery. The occasion was the launch of Uhambo which marked the 10th anniversary exhibition Of Soul and Joy, an organisation which promotes photography practice involving young people and the communities in disadvantaged backgrounds in the township of Thokoza.

The initiative uses experienced photographers as mentors for the young photographers whom they take through all the necessary steps of story-telling using the medium of photography. Though the project since it started has been focusing in Thokoza, the Johannesburg  east Rand Township, which in the early 1990s, just when the country was on the cusp of democracy was engulfed in black-on-black violence involving mainly hostel dwellers and those from the township, is slowly spreading its tentacles to other communities in the country and beyond.

Although this social initiative marked its 10th anniversary last year, it is only now that it is celebrating that achievement through Uhambo exhibition. The exhibition opened on January 21 2023 and will run till February 24, 2023. Uhambo is open to all, and those who will have an opportunity to visit it, will see a world of how people live their life in pride and inspiration in Thokoza open to them.  This vid picture of life in Thokoza is told by its very young people, with the support of the communities.  Different aspects of life are captured in Uhambo.

Though as a viewer you will be able to tell that this community is poor through for example make-shift housing structures that are captured by these young photographers incidentally, such as teen structures that pass for housing, there is more to it than that. Granted, the young photographers at face-value seem to be oblivious of this stark reality. Their lenses are focused on the positive aspects of life. Young people on bicycles. Stylishly dressed ladies.

Diversity of the community in this township. Lovers in an embrace and deep conversation in the streets. Tin spaza shops selling the popular township burgher known as Kota. Young shirtless men showing off their bulging biceps. A lady of the house doing washing outside her shack house with her hands while the man of the house is enjoying breakfast next to her. A picture of a popipheis (Afrikaans for dollhouse. These images clearly seem to normalise the situation of community  in desperate need of change. Or is that so?

Looking at it differently, all what  these images tell is a story of a community aspiring for a better life, in the process  seeming to ignore the grim reality of their grim existence almost 30 years after democracy was attained. Though the portraits show images of a happy and proud community, when one looks deeper into these images, you are struck by the reality that the benefits of freedom are yet to trickle down to this community.

Life seems to have been at a stand-still for the past nearly 30 years of South Africa attaining freedom from the oppression of the Apartheid past. These images by these young photographers though must have been created not with the intention of deceiving or distracting a viewer from focussing on the obvious social ills and poverty in this community. But to tell a different story. A story that says yes, we may be poor, but we are proud. We look forward to a better life that defies the precarious situation of our circumstances. We are not our current circumstances permanently. This situation we find ourselves in is ephemeral. Not permanent.

These images are a narrative of a resilient community trying to have a positive attitude in order to overcome the reality of their circumstances of grinding poverty, social ills and neglect by those charged with changing these people’s lives for the better in a post-Apartheid South Africa. Through these images, the young photographers of Thokoza are in fact defiant to their circumstances. Saying that we are in fact human and a better future is attainable in our lifetime. It is a powerful narrative of a community yearning for freedom from poverty.

“What I have learned from this project as a mentor is the capacity to be patient with young photographers. One mistake a mentor can make with tragic results is to not be patient. If you do you risk to stir the photographers to create the images in the style that you as a mentor creates. Let them be free to create images they have in their heads. Allow them to be themselves.” Jabulani Dhlamini told CITYLIFE/ARTS in an interview at the opening of Uhambo. He is the project manager for this social initiative.

He explained that the project has been a success for the past 10 years because of its collaborative nature, working with young photographers as well as with communities from which they are drawn.

“Collaborating with communities, getting support from them is very important, especially when it comes to the arts as many people really do not understand art. Personally I was taught photography by street photographers from my community. Fortunately my family supported me all the way. But not every young photographer is that fortunate. But through this project, our approach is to involve the community so that they support their children in their photography practice,” added Dhalmini.

Since it started, Of Soul and Joy has demonstrated its transformative capacity, with some of its alumni going on to become successful artists in their own right. A clear example is Lindokuhle Sobekwa, who this week won the prestigious John Kobal Foundation Award that comes with a huge financial reward.

“Others such as Vuyo Mabekha and Sibusiso Bheka are represented by Afronova Gallery,” revealed Dhlamini.

Although the initiative has its roots in Thokoza, it is now spreading to other areas such as the rural areas. “Last year we held a photography workshop in Nquthu in KwaZalu-Natala led by Thandile Zwelibanzi. Again this year in March we are taking an exhibition there. We are even planning to go to other African countries with the project with Mozambique on our immediate sight. About three years ago, Zawelibanzi and I went to Mali with the project as well,” revealed Dhlamini.

Indeed “Of Soul and Joy is an arts initiative to think about humanity, freedom, and the play making. It inspires the possibility that photography has the potential to also celebrate our existence, spirituality and creativity.”

This must be what the young photographers and their mentors must have felt when creating these images that form Uhambo. It is also accompanied by an interesting to-read book of photographs and an essay by well-known photography trainer and mentor John Fleetwood. Fleetwood is the former director of Market Photo Workshop who now runs a pan African photography development Non-Profit Organisation. The title of the book is YE10 RSA. It retails at R500.

The participating mentors and photographers are Sibusisoo Bheka, Jabulani Dhlamini, Thembinkosi Hlatswayo, Litha Kanda, Vuyo Mabheka, Katiso Mabuza, Tshepiso Mazibuko, Lunathi Mngxuma, Fuwe Molefe, Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Siphiwe Vilakazi and Thandile Zwelibanzi.

.Uhambo January 21-February 24, 2023, Umhlabathi Gallery, 2 Helen Josphy Street, Newtown, Johannesburg next to the Bus Factory.

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