by Sean O’Toole
He is best known for his black and white portraits of Nigerian women sporting elaborate sculptural hairdos, but J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere – or simply “Pa” Ojeikere to his many Lagosian admirers – also made colour photographs. In 1966, while working for West Africa Publicity Ltd., a specialist marketing company that grew out of a colonial business offering advertising services, Ojeikere took on his first job with Lintas, the in-house advertising department of Lever Brothers, the British company behind Lux soap.
“The company brought the first Miss Nigeria for me to photograph,” recalled 83-year-old Ojeikere in a 2009 interview. As was already custom then in advertising, Ojeikere – who, like Santu Mofokeng, started his professional career as a darkroom assistant – used colour film for the job. Colour was still an expensive novelty in Nigeria at the time.
“After taking the photographs the conventional way, which was one of my major challenges in those days, I gave the films to my boss for processing abroad because there was no processing lab in the country at that time,” said Ojeikere.
When his photographs of Miss Nigeria arrived back from London, there was a note attached: “Either wrong light or film was used for photography.” The problem, it turned out, was lighting. Ojeikere, whose legacy as a photographer will always hinge on his monochrome studies of Nigerian culture and invention, had to swot up quickly on colour. Miss Nigeria was duly invited back to his studio.
“I did another job which turned out to be a good one,” he said. “After that I became an adviser to other photographers.”
Ojeikere is not the only African photographer to struggle – if not technically then at least attitudinally – with colour photography. David Goldblatt, the austere humanist photographer from Johannesburg, while long competent with the medium, resisted using it for his personal work for just as long.
“I have been enjoying working in colour, but it is still a bit too colourful for me,” he told me at his home in Fellside in 2002. “One of the reasons why I didn’t persist with colour in my personal work was because it was too sweet, too colourful.” As a compromise, he – or at least his photographic technician Tony Meintjes – leached the colour from Goldblatt’s newer colour photographs.
A younger generation of African photographers (including Thabiso Sekgala and Sydelle Willow Smith from South Africa, Lakin Ogunbanwo from Nigeria and Filipe Branquinho from Mozambique) are less influenced by a tradition in which colour represented the language of commerce, at least among photographers, while serious photography, i.e. work driven by personal enquiry, was a black and white affair, particularly in South Africa.
“From the very beginning of photography, the rendition of lens-based images orientated towards the greys, blacks and whites of offset printing,” writes Berlin-based Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi in Just Ask!, a forthcoming book of essays on photography. According to Akinbiyi, who still produces black and white work using a classic Rollei twin-lens reflex camera, the bias towards black and white for serious documentary, art and reportage photography only began to shift in the 1970s and even later in South Africa.
While a student at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, the accomplished portraitist Zwelethu Mthethwa also worked in black and white. Examples of his early work – photographs from Crossroads, a settlement outside Cape Town – appear in Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester’s Rise and Fall of Apartheid exhibition, an encyclopaedic showcase of South Africa’s mostly black and white tradition of photojournalism and documentary photography.
Mthethwa, who is accused of fatally assaulting 23-year-old prostitute Nokuphila Kumalo, has been a notable critic of this tradition at least since the late 1990s when his colour photography began attracting international attention. His criticisms, first recorded in an interview in the catalogue for the Democracy’s Images exhibition (1998, Umea, Sweden), owe a great deal to his postgraduate studies in the United States.
Thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, Mthethwa was able to enrol on a Master’s degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York in 1987. “When I studied at Michaelis they did not have colour facilities,” Mthethwa told me in 2004. “At RIT we had 22 colour darkrooms.” His first experiments with colour provided an insight.
“When I looked at my work that I shot before I went to the US, work I had started in 1984 already, I was shocked,” he said. “My work seemed to perpetuate the myth that poor people are miserable and down-and-out.”
Mthethwa’s decisive shift to colour has become a way of theorising aesthetics in post-apartheid South Africa. Colour dignifies, so the argument goes. But not everyone agrees with its logic.
“I felt that my work and that of lefties, groups and archives, and other activists and organisations along with their efforts were being insulted and thrown out like so much apartheid paraphernalia and baggage,” said Santu Mofokeng in an e-mail interview last year. Mofokeng, who currently has photographs on show at the Berlin Biennale, interpreted Mthethwa’s statements as an expedient attack on a particular tradition of black and white photography.
“I felt our efforts in fighting and agitating for apartheid to be disbanded and abandoned were being rubbished,” he said. “He appeared serendipitously when South Africa needed a face with the developments in the country. He was rooted for by former apartheid museum directors who were looking to legitimise their collections and other policies, which ignored struggle images and documentaries.”
According to art historian John Peffer, author of Art and the End of Apartheid (2009), Mthethwa’s colour theory is also historically inaccurate. Many photographers linked to Afrapix, the non-racial, anti-apartheid photography collective founded by Paul Weinberg and Omar Badsha and staffed by, among others, Mofokeng and Guy Tillim, used colour, he argues. But in his words, “They didn’t make a big deal of it.”
To a certain degree, the argument over colour – particularly about its usability and ethics as a medium for serious work in post-apartheid South Africa – is being nurtured and sustained by a generation of photographers (and scholars) weaned on analogue photography.
“With the advent of the digital age, colour has become supreme,” writes Akinbiyi, with a hint of resignation. “Black and white is now generally seen as a throwback to a once-strong tradition that has more or less lost its audience.” Ojeikere has recognised this too. “We are in a jet age,” he remarked last year.
It’s an apt expression, especially given the remarkable success of colour documentarians like Pieter Hugo and Mikhael Subotzky from South Africa, or Edson Chagas, the Angolan photographer who won for his country the prestigious Golden Lion award for best national pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale.
Entirely fluent with the medium of colour, their work – along with that of Egypt’s Nabil Boutros, the Zimbabwean Calvin Dondo and Lubumbashi resident Sammy Baloji – has rapidly concretised a fragile tradition, of sorts. Their work is now routinely mimicked (or rejected) by an even younger generation of photographers working with colour.
Trained as an architect, Maputo-born Filipe Branquinho grew up with the black and white photographs of Ricardo Rangel and Kok Nam, distinguished Mozambican documentarians who recorded the many joys and agonies of their country’s painful birth. In his on-going portrait essay Occupations (2011-), Branquinho however assumes a more formal approach than his predecessors. Interested not only in showing what people do for work in Maputo but also where they do it, his colour portraits show Mozambique’s Indian Ocean capital to be a place of work and enterprise, of civil servants and athletes, and also of firemen and hawkers. Hugo is a reference, although Branquinho is more empathetic towards his subjects than his South African counterpart, closer in spirit in fact to the grandfather of occupational enquiry, German photographer August Sander.
In her confidant debut exhibition Soft Walls, which was recently shown in Johannesburg and Cape Town, Sydelle Willow Smith trains her lens on the immigrant experience, on the difficult process of making a home and finding work in a country hostile to African migrants. Many of her colour photographs are situated in South African homes, although Smith just as often rides buses and trains with her subjects – much like Goldblatt and Mofokeng did in the 1980s, the decade Willow was born. Occasionally, she also registers the detritus of city life: a puddle of broken glass from a car window, a piece of vagrant graffiti painted on an overpass.
Smith produced her essay as part of the Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship in Photography, a new award supervised by the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. Founded in 1989 by Goldblatt as a forum to make photography accessible to a broader demographic than white apartheid culture allowed, past graduates of this now formalised training institution include Zanele Muholi, Jodi Bieber and Nontsikelelo Veleko. Alongside Smith, other recent graduates generating interest in their work include Mack Magagane, Musa Nxumalo and Thabiso Sekgala.
“Being an African certainly plays a critical role in Sekgala’s perception, which he charges with irony,” writes Njami of this Soweto-born photographer. Perhaps. After seeing Running, his self-assured debut at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, I recognised a capable editorial photographer and idiosyncratic documentarian whose sometimes-oblique photographs suggest Sekgala may be the heir apparent to that fragile tradition I mentioned earlier.
Sekgala first generated interest with his essay on contemporary life in South Africa’s former Bantustans, those nominally independent black states that buttressed the farce of separate development during apartheid rule. Mixing landscape with portraits of youthful subjects, all crucially presented in colour, his photographs were a logical closing bracket to Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Sekgala’s more recent colour work shows street life and café culture in Amman, Bulawayo and Berlin. Sekgala is drawn to uncommon street corners. His photographs show an abundance of parked cars and empty chairs. Gokitima KgoPhala kekgo sepela, Bulawayo, a 2013 work showing a pedestrian in a suit looking back at the photographer as he walks past six naked mannequins, dramatises Sekgala’s observational prowess, blur and all.
Once, not too long ago, photographers were generally of the belief that this sort of thing was not possible with colour. To be fair, the technology available was not on their side. Colour processes accented sweetness; printing was unreliable.
In a 2006 interview, Ojeikere remarked that he “always preferred” black and white photography. Why? The results lasted longer. “Colour photographs fade in a very short period because of the colour dye they have.” But that was then. The jet age is here, and with it a whole generation gifted with what Tom Wolfe once called “the right stuff”.
Just Ask!, edited by Simon Njami, will be released at the Joburg Art Fair in August 2014.
Rise and Fall of Apartheid is on view at Museum Africa in Johannesburg until the end of June.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.