Recent Acquisitions: Nomusa Makhubu, Self-Portrait series, 2007–2013

Hood Quarterly, winter 2015

In Self-Portrait, Nomusa Makhubu (born 1984) presents a haunting vision of South Africa's past by embedding her portrait on several colonial-type photographs. The Cape Town–based South African artist developed the visually compelling and evocative photographic series, comprised of thirteen prints, between 2007 and 2013. It was originally part of a body of work entitled Pre-Served, which examined representations of African women in colonial photography that dates from 1870 to 1920. Makhubu's projected body is a transparent vehicle through which carefully selected archival images seep into the present while she recedes into history, creating a jarring sense of time-travel in which the viewer is offered a glimpse into the conventions of colonial representation that produced black subjectivities in specific ways. Colonial photography advanced scientific racism by reducing African bodies to phenotypes or infantilizing African subjects and consigning them to nature. Makhubu addresses this history in Inhlamvu Yamehlo (The Gaze), Umqela Nombhaco (Beautification Scar), and Ntombi (Young Girl). In Omama Bencelisa (Mothers Breastfeeding), Inkosikazi (Queen), Umasifanisane I (Comparison I), and Umasifanisane II (Comparison II), the viewer is confronted by African subjects who are placed against backgrounds of flora and fauna to suggest their natural environment.

An ethnographic medium, colonial photography also reproduced African bodies as social documents about the "native" in the throes of social, political, and economic changes, as seen in Mfundo, Impahla neBhayibheli (Education, Apparel, and the Bible) and Goduka (Going / Migrant Labourers) from the series. Initially inspired by Makhubu's personal reflections on the unstable nature of ethnicity in constituting the basis of cultural identity and social identification, her Self-Portrait series mirrors a South African creative tradition of politicizing the personal as it relates to the female body. Artists such as Tracey Rose and Berni Searle are well known for deploying their own bodies as a medium to generate discussions on South Africa's fraught histories, fractured identities, and gender issues. In addition, Makhubu's strategy of repurposing the archive to question colonial hegemonies is not entirely new. The celebrated photographer Santu Mofokeng had drawn from the archive in his poignant Black Family Album / Look at Me series, which addresses the ways in which colonial photography ignored black social agency and excluded African subjects from modernity. Yet Self-Portrait is outstanding in that Makhubu combines the two strategies to great success, creating a highly affective work that memorializes the past while deeply challenging the present.

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Written January 15, 2015