Utata Undiphotha Inwele | Thandiwe Msebenzi

Wed, April 10, 2019 to Sat, May 4, 2019

SMITH is delighted to present Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice Fellow, Thandiwe Msebenzi’s first solo show with the gallery, Utata Undiphotha Inwele (My Father Plaits My Hair).

At the heart of this exhibition is Msebenzi’s visceral childhood memory of her father plaiting her hair. This tender memory stands out because, as Thandiwe explains, she was “constantly exposed to violence” while growing up in New Crossroads, Nyanga and as a result “associated violence with masculinity.” This led her to start questioning the dominant constructions of gender that surrounded her. How was it that the world told her that all men growing up in neighbourhoods like hers were violent aggressors and that all women were helpless victims when her lived experience said otherwise?

In an earlier body of work, Awundiboni (You Don’t See Me), Msebenzi used her own personal experiences to shine a spotlight on how patriarchy affects women. In this upcoming exhibition, Thandiwe turns the lens on men: “I saw some young men that grew up violent, but at the same time I was blown away by other men around me who grew up in the very same violent environment, but never became violent themselves.” While the world told her one thing, her own life experiences told her another. This tension gave rise to the exploration of different ways of being a man that Thandiwe explores in her upcoming exhibition.

A graduate of the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, Msebenzi received the prestigious Tierney Photography Fellowship Award in 2014. In 2015 she became a founding member of the iQhiya collective, exhibiting with the group at the AVA Gallery, FNB Joburg Art Fair and Documenta 14 in Greece and Germany. In 2016 Thandiwe was selected for the ABSA L’Atelier top ten, completing a four month residency at the Cape Town School of Photography which culminated in Awundiboni. Following the success of this show, in 2017 Thandiwe took to the stage as a speaker at Cape Town’s Design Indaba and at the Dutch Design Week. In 2018 she was chosen as one of nine international artists to receive the prestigious Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice fellowship. Thandiwe is currently based at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock and is completing her Masters in Women and Gender Studies at the University of the Western Cape. Her work has been featured in the Bubblegum Club, Between 10 and 5 and Lens Scratch among others.

The majority of her photographs are self portraits. “I’m using my own body to talk about others’ stories” she says. One such story is about Thandiwe’s own grandmother and explores the myth that women in violent spaces are simply helpless victims. In the image Thandiwe is portrayed looking directly into the camera challenging the viewer while holding a stick in each hand – a reference to the traditional Xhosa male sport of stick fighting. This image is a homage to her grandmother who once challenged a man to a stick fight after he laid claim to her cow when it wondered onto his land. As the story goes, Thandiwe’s grandmother defied expectations by winning the fight and returning home with her cow. “The women that raised me always had weapons with them whether it was under their beds for protection at night, or in their handbags, they were always armed.” This aspect of Thandiwe’s work shows the interconnected nature of constructions of gender. Her grandmother was inhabiting a traditional performance of masculinity by challenging another man to a fight. In a similar way, Thandiwe’s father was displaying what is typically considered feminine behaviour by plaiting her hair. Thandiwe believes that art allows for more intuitive expressions and fluidity that help break out of these simplistic binaries of what it means to be a man or a woman.

In an age of #MeToo, when society has been forced to reckon with the violence perpetuated by narrow and toxic constructions of masculinity, Thandiwe’s work is a vital intervention. Using the dynamic, physical and intuitive medium of art, including photographs, performance and installations, Thandiwe draws on the personal to challenge sweeping generalisations about gender. “Violence is not innate, otherwise everyone that I grew up with would be violent.”

Utata undiphotha inwele opens on 10 April, 2019 at 17:30 and will run until 4 May. For further enquiries or to request an Artist statement, please contact Jana Terblanche at jana@smithstudio.co.za.