I am back at the Joburg City library. Today is not a day of being lost in the pages that fill the books, that fill the shelves, but to meet the radiance that is Masego Phalane. It has been a minute since we met in Soweto to talk about her second series of self-portraits which focused on hair. Today’s encounter is also about hair. Not her own, but rather, the hair of other women, as her current work moves her away from the comfort zone of photographing herself to an enquiry from other women. With her latest series, Masego Phalane investigates “how women see themselves within their own spaces and how this relates to the way they wear their hair.” Find answers to this question and more in the insert below, enjoy.
Shots011: So how have you been since our last interview, what’s new in the wonderful world of Masego Phalane?
Masego Phalane: It’s been awesome. With each day I get one step closer. There’s been tremendous growth since the last time.
Shots011: In what way?
MP: I feel the biggest growth has been on how to train my visual eye. A new way of seeing. Last time we met, you encouraged looking into other artist’s work. So I’ve been looking at a lot of work not for referencing as such but just to open myself up to new ways of seeing.
I’ve also produced a new body of work. The last time we met, we had a focus on the Hair Series which focused on my own personal hair. I looked at the projects that I had already worked on and decided to break away from this comfort zone of self-potraiture. This is a follow up to that and it is called We Are women: Our crowns. This project involved other women into the project. I wanted to shed light on how women interact and relate to their hair and what their hair means to them as well. I wanted to take it outside of myself and find out how other women see themselves within their own spaces and how this relates to the way they wear their hair.
Shots011: You did a flash exhibition of this work at Lebo’s Backpackers in Soweto as part of the His and Her(s) Jam, how has the reception been to the work?
MP: The work was received well. It was received in a way which I kind of anticipated. However, it was also taken beyond some of my expectations. When you start involving the masses into your work, you receive a greater response than when you do it yourself. When you work with yourself, the work can feel almost one dimensional. We are only interacting with one person. However, I am now looking and interacting with other women. So there’s is an expansion in the way people interact with my work.
Shots011: What was the response from the women you photographed and those who interacted with the work?
MP: Apart from its visual aesthetic, it reassured them that they looked beautiful. They also responded to our conversations on hair since each photograph was created after we had conversations on hair and the some of the reasons why I was doing this as well.
I didn’t want to shoot portraits of hair on its own. I wanted a sense of the character and personality of the people I photographed. I wanted to see how they resonated with their hair. If you just see the hair with no face, then we have a missing link. With them and their faces in it, it completes it, especially if the work is in colour.
I’ve been afraid to use too much colour in my previous work. However, with this work, I wanted to introduce a bit more of it to give the work a sense of joy. I often told the women I worked with that we are light beings. Our lives need not be dark because of our situations or stance in life. Some of the talks were about free speech when it came to sexuality. We shared our experiences on what it meant being a woman, dressing up in a certain way, how having a certain hairstyle made you feel etc. So the colour is a celebration of women, it’s a mood, a feeling and vibrancy of happiness and joy.
What I have also grasped from the ladies was a referencing of African hairstyles to political activism. There is this lady who resonated deeply with Mariam Makeba’s music and political stance because she loved her music and wanted to go into politics but couldn’t. So her hair is a merger of her love for music with her own political stance, and therefore, she styles her hair in a certain way.
Shots011: What are some of the questions you asked yourself while creating this project?
MP: For me, it was really about expanding the work beyond myself and my social positioning within the world and the arts. I feel it is about time we as women embrace ourselves. We should never feel any less of being women because of the way society has structured its views on women. We should not succumb to what society’s dictate.
I had actually intended for the project to come out in August since its women’s month in South Africa. I wanted the project to be split into two: We are women: Our Crowns and, Sacred Bodies. These two projects are essentially a celebration of women. If you look at a lot of social and mainstream media, women are constantly misrepresented as sexual objects more than anything else. So I wanted to show the beauty that is our hair and how our bodies are sacred. Even when we have dressed/covered our bodies less, it does not pose as a sexual invitation.
Shots011: We’ve been having a lot of women and hair conversations popping up on the news and social media platforms, most noticeably, the Pretoria Girls High Protest. Has this affected your approach in any way?
MP: I wouldn’t say it has affected my work as such but has rather shown the other side. It has shown who we are and what our hair represents and we should, therefore, embrace it more.
This whole issue of schools and workplaces not allowing us to express ourselves in terms of our hair has really come under scrutiny. Especially as part of our identity more than anything. If you look at the African history of hair, you begin to realize that people just didn’t decide to have their hair a certain way because they wanted to. Some hair styles reflected your ethnic group or your position within your family and society. You can see this if you look at the history of countries such as Ethiopia and how men would wear their hair during times of war. They would have hairstyles that would distinctively show which men were ready to go out to, or participated in wars.
You also see this a lot in farms and plantations were slave trade was prevalent. Because once the slaves were captured, they would cut their hair, because slaves could not present themselves in ways that suited them. Their masters would decide how they should present themselves when to talk and what to do. That alone is a way that one can take power or your strength away from you, using your hair. It is the same thing they do once you get to prison. They shave your hair off. Why? Because that alone is an act to prove that you have no power once you’re in prison. It signifies that you have no say in how to wear your own hair.
So this whole thing of restricting female children and women to certain hairstyles restricts a whole lot of self-identity. It restricts you, your expressions and who you are. Our hair holds a lot of power and strength. Black women’s hair is expressive and liberating. It is how we represent ourselves. It is who we are!
Shots011: You’re also gearing up to leave for Miami next year. How did that come about and what are you looking forward to?
MP: (Laughs). You know when I applied for that job, I was literally just taking chances. I thought, let me just try something and see how it turns out. Its studio based work on a cruise ship. I’ve been doing a lot of studio work throughout my career so I thought this would be a great way to grow outside of the South African set-up of studio work. I do not know what is happening on the other side of the world when it comes to studio photography. So yeah, I applied for the job and I got it.
What I am actually looking forward to is not just about the work itself but travelling and creating more projects around myself and other women in these different spaces and places. I am curious as to how the treatment will be once I start finding myself in these places. You know in our previous encounters we’ve always discussed how your environment is very influential. There is no way you are not going to absorb anything from where you are. So I hope to do more of these projects once I am that side and see what the response will be.
Shots011: Would you still tackle ideas on hair once you get that side, or its an “I’ll wait and see” kind of situation?
MP: I’ve actually been thinking about that. I want to see how women on the other side of the world feel about their hair, not just from an African context. As I said, black hair can be expressively liberating. You can do whatever you want with it. From shaves to wraps, to locks, to braids, to cornrows. There is so much more you could do with your black hair. However, I do not know much about how women from the other side of the world relate or view their own hair.
There are also some of my projects on self-portraiture, such as I am my Father’s Daughter, which I will explore ways of executing it in a different manner once I am over there. It can take years to produce an exceptional body of work, but once it’s all done it will be worth it.
Shots011: When we met Aida Muluneh whose work was one of the highlights of the FNB Joburg Art fair, you had a conversation with her. What was some of the advice that she gave you during the conversation?
MP: We spoke mostly about stuff that up-and-coming artists should be thinking about. She pointed out how there is still so much to learn. That learning never stops and that it should always a continuous process. This resonated so much with me because I still need to learn and master this photography craft. She also reflected on how we as female photographers should not forget our own standpoints. She was quick to point out how we should not compare ourselves to our male counterparts. That we should not feel second best when compared to our male counterparts. She mentioned how it is important to work hard on your own craft and not focus solely on your standing as a female photographer.
It was really a short conversation that we had, however, it shed light on some things I felt I needed to absorb and understand. I always say, the more you meet people and talk, the more you open your world up to the possibilities of grasping views from other people as well.
You know photography is not something that we just do for the fun of it. It sustains us. It gives us purpose. We just don’t decide that we are going to be these Art Photographers. You want your work to serve a purpose. So if we engage more and share more by taking our work out to other people, then we have built a strong foundation for other up-and-coming artists who will be able to reflect on the work fifteen/twenty years from now. It’s really not something you do in a short space of time and if it’s a passion, it will stay with you.
This is where we decided to leave it for now. As we keep a close eye on Masego’s career and her upcoming projects. To see more of Masego’s work, you can visit her website, Facebook or Instagram. You can also see some of her other projects here.