It’s a Friday, and I am in Vikakazi Street in Soweto. The only street in the world where two Nobel Piece Prize winners Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived. As well as being one the most visited places in Soweto, Vilakazi is also home to a restaurant called Nexdor and this is where I met up with Market Photo Alumni, Masego Phalane. We take a seat at the restaurant’s rooftop and start talking about photography. I listen as Masego tells me about her current series of portraits, her ideas on art and the Soweto arts culture, this is how it went…
Shots011: Who is Masego?
MP: Masego Phalane is a 23 year old from Soweto. She is art, simply because she was created. I do not consider myself as an artist but a work of art. I am the light. I am love. I am music. I am my family. And most importantly, I am my father’s daughter.
Shots011: How’s Soweto?
MP: Soweto is beauty man; the mixture of cultures and the different people. It also evolves every time. Not just the arts evolution, but its people as well. The environment is turning to a suburban area now. It still remains a township; however it’s getting classier now. You can see it on streets like Vikakazi, where it’s getting revamped.
You still get that sense of home though. People are still cultured. There’s still a lot of humanity. Even though there are people moving out of Soweto and new people are coming in, they too pick up the feel of Soweto. It has a way of transforming people. So even if you are from the East Rand where there is a lot of “mind your own business”, when you come this side, you open up to people.
It’s very welcoming I must say. I don’t think I’ll move. It’s a constant battle between me and my sister since she wants to move. Traveling is great as well, as it broadens your mind and you become in touch with other environments. It’s an opportunity to reflect on that environment versus the previous one and find a way that you can connect these places. So I will hopefully travel more this year.
Soweto still remains home though. I don’t have a huge family, it’s just me and my sister, and at times I do not want to leave. I’m not that anxious about going outside this place, not just the walls of our house. I just feel like if I leave, I might lose my own touch with reality.
Shots011: Your first series of portraits ties closely to the personal relationship you had with your father, this has also inspired the recent series of portraits you did. Why did you feel now was the right time to open up about this relationship?
MP: As I said, I am my father’s daughter. My father has been a great influence in my life, from my own idealism of womanhood to photography and even the projects I create, he has been the most influential. So I was coming up with ideas for a project I am working on called, I am my father’s daughter, and from it I saw something else I thought had defined me as well- who Masego is and the things that contribute to building my character.
It was shot at home where the environment played a huge role in developing the work. Then it became a question of how? How has my home influenced me? The space? The people that surround me?
So the series incorporated the feel of photography, (since my dad introduced me to it) and there’s music and fashion. All three things formed part of the series. It also looks at me as an individual. How home has been a reflection of who I am. The series answered a lot on who Masego is.
Shots011: Has photography helped the healing process?
MP: Honestly, it has. It is my way of dealing with my challenges. It calms me down, much like how music does. So photography has become a sort of therapy for me. It is like a diary. I photograph what I feel; what I like, just like how you would with a diary. It becomes a way of expressing my emotions and telling my stories and the continued self-discovery of Masego.
Shots011: Your current work looks at your relationship with your hair, what inspired that?
MP: It started with a song by Nina Simone, Black is the color of my true loves hair. Last year November I decided to cut my hair. I went to the salon, sat down staring at the mirrors and waited my turn. The lady came with the scissors and clippers and I decided, No! It was my hair and something inside of me had said no. I started asking myself what happened?
I got home and started exploring this through my photography. Why am I so attached to my hair? It must be more than this thing that’s on my head. Why am I so protective of my hair, even when people want to touch it? My hair has always been dreadlocked ever since I was young. I have never applied any relaxers or softeners to it.
So I felt that my hair is a large part of who I was. My strength, it’s not coarse because that’s how it is, but my hair is strong! It may seem frail, but it has been with me through my life and the motions. So that’s where the idea came from.
Shots011: As you mentioned, your father also influenced your taste in music, what are some of the artists and genres that have been incorporated into the work?
MP: There’s a lot of jazz, my dad loved jazz. When I come up with ideas for my projects, there is a lot of music playing in the background. I feel music helps stimulate a lot of ideas that turn into the projects I work on. Every project then has a title song in it. It’s usually because when the idea came about I was listening to that song and it brought up some of the memories. The melodies and the instruments are some of the things my dad loved! Like the bass guitar for example. I incorporate these elements into the work. Jazz and boxing were his favorite things.
Shots011: What are some of the challenges you face as an emerging photographer?
MP: I think the challenge has been: What I am I trying to communicate to my viewers. At the end of the day, we do not only create art for ourselves, but for other people as well. You cannot tell stories that other people do not relate to. That is the challenge. How people perceive your work. What are their views? At this point, I am inviting the viewer into my life and leave it up to them to decide what they take from it. However, your work might be misinterpreted. People may see something that you have not thought to create. I feel that’s where the challenge is.
Shots011: Are there any galleries or spaces that you would like your work to be exhibited in?
MP: (Laughs). Like any other artist, I’d love to see my work in galleries. I’d like to see how people engage with the work and hear their views. I feel social media is not enough to engage in dialogue with other people. I feel a lot of times, people on social media are just buying face. A lot of times, they just like you because it’s Masego. They do not engage with the work. There’s a very few people who will read into it and understand what you are trying to tell. What Masego is really trying to put across out there. There are very limited views and comments or direction about the work. However, as an artist you still want to get your work out there, for yourself and the viewers as well.
So I feel with galleries, there will be an increased engagement with the work. It’s a much broader space where people come to see the work. You can physically interact with the work. There’s a structure and documentation that goes in-line with the work. There are many galleries out there so it would be hard to choose. However if I had to choose, I’d say the Goodman Gallery, Stephenson, Stop Sign with the young Zama Phakhathi.
I think we all just want to be part of the collective youth that are coming up with the fresh ideas
Shots011: Who has been your greatest inspiration?
MP: My greatest inspiration has been my dad and my family; the values they have instilled in me. They have been instrumental in shaping the woman I have come to be. The continued support that they have shown me.
My sister supports my art completely. She wouldn’t care if I photographed myself only; she just appreciates what I do.
Shots011: Has it also been a healing process for her?
MP: it also has in some way. If I am fulfilled, then she is also fulfilled. So if it makes me happy and heals me, then she’s happy.
Shots011: Do you have any contemporaries who have work that you admire?
MP: I think I admire a lot of photographers. There’s a lot of work out there that speaks to me. I may not have a specific artist, but there is certainly a lot of great work that just speaks to me.
However, I have been looking at Tony Gum’s work recently. She is art herself, and she also photographs herself. Her stance is inspirational. I pick up from it and it helps me explore beyond just taking portraits of myself.
Shots011: What inspired you to turn the camera on yourself?
MP: I think I love seeing myself in photographs. It’s how I appreciate myself as a woman. I think it draws back to what I said; I am a work of art. My presence in the photographs stands out. So a lot of times before I photograph my work, I look into the mirror; introspect, time-travel, and ask who is Masego? What do I appreciate about her? Are there things I would like to change about her? I think I find a lot of inspiration within myself.
It is also about the stories as well, and at the end of the day these are my stories. It’s about how these stories reflect through me. So if I find a subject to communicate across I cannot use someone else. When I do, it doesn’t feel real anymore. It becomes hard for them to relate the stories to what I want to tell. So I use myself as the subject. I have a very clear mind of what I want to do and say. What I am doing and how I feel.
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Masego the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Masego outside photography.
What is your favourite word?
It’s not a word but an expression rather; “AHH” before the words: awesome, nice!!!
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively?
What turns you off?
What is your favourite curse word?
What sound or noise do you love?
Sound of birds.
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’m loving what I do, I don’t think of anything else .
What profession would you not like to do?
Call Centre, customer care services, dealing with finances.. Ahh No!!!
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?