CityLife Arts

Siphephile Sibanyoni, a photographer dedicated to documenting the lives of indigenous people of Africa

Edward Tsumele

When you first look at the images, they look like happy faces, and even magnificent. But it is when you spend a little bit more time and you are intentional in trying to make sense of these seemingly contented faces decoding the messages that may be hidden by these beautiful images.

It is then that you actually get to understand that these are images of people who are facing an existential crisis as far as their culture and way of life is concerned. Photographed by well travelled photographer Siphephile Sibannyoni over a period of five years from 2015 to 2018, covering four countries and a semi autonomous province of one, these images tell a painful story of a people’s culture under threat of erasure.

The Last Defenders are a series that looks deeply into the lives of indigenous people of Africa and how these people are fighting a losing battle to keep their culture in the face o encroaching foreign influences. The series took Sibanyoni on this self-funded trip into the lives of indigenous people in Swaziland, Namibia, mainland Tanzania and its semi-autonomous province of Zanzibar and Kenya “The perception that they are happy people that you may see when you look at these images actually hides a painful story carried in the faces of these indigenous people desperately holding onto what little is left of their traditional way of life in the face of encroaching phenomenon such as modernity, digitization and climate change.

These factors are not only threatening to change their ways of life forever, but the transition has left these people disoriented and confused as they try to defend, hopelessly the little that is left of their traditional ways of life,” says the photographer Sibanyoni who has won a number of awards for her work. Born in Swaziland, but based and practicing her art in South Africa, this series will form part of her planned book, also entitled The Last Defenders, which she plans to publish soon.

“I will publish the book after I have gone to Ethiopia and document the lives of indigenous tribes there in the Omo region of Ethiopia. Creating this series is a lot of hard work as I also have to live with these people for some time, immersing myself into their society so that I get to deeply understand their culture,” says Sibanyoni. What this series is essentially is, is a photographic prologue on the beauty of consciousness. The journeys taken in exchange of solace, livelihood, awareness and other endeavors with the Inhabitants of the world, through the lens.

A travel expedition conducted through frontiers and landscapes of the African continent and beyond, trying to learn more and unleash the irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world, Tribes. ‘Many minority and indigenous communities right across the African continent are being displaced because of political conflicts, natural resource extraction, large-scale infrastructure projects and tourism parks. Sibanyoni explores the impact of armed conflict, land dispossession and discrimination on the most fundamental aspects of minority and indigenous identities, namely their languages, art, traditional knowledge and spirituality.

The portraits depict the lives of inhabitants and the communities who live sustainably and responsibly off the earth – yet they often live in poverty, and are marginalized and brutalized by those who want their land. Climate change is set to exacerbate these problems.

And for the last league of her continental wanderings, and this time to Ethiopia, she is involved in a fundraising exercise participating in a group exhibition at Agog Gallery in Maboneng opening on December 6 and will run until December 19. She is also fundraising through Go Fund Me, a crowd funding platform. This untitled exhibition organized by Narowbi also features the works of fine artists that include Amanda Motsegoa, Ofentse Netshivangane, Sifiso Mkhabela and Ejay Khaled. Music and poetry is part of this event.

Those wishing to donate money for Siphephile Sibanyoni’s  research trip to Ethiopia for her upcoming book The Last defenders can do so by visiting the fundraising link:

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2 thoughts on “Siphephile Sibanyoni, a photographer dedicated to documenting the lives of indigenous people of Africa

  1. Wow amazing work she’s doing. Bravo to her 👏🏾. Beautiful art work. Clement change is the big problem. Politics another big problem. Corrupt government another big problem. Poisonous food eg processed food another big problem for our health.

    How can we save Indigenous peoples coz they continue to face threats to their sovereignty, economic well-being, languages, ways of knowing and access to the resources on which their cultures depend.

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