Talking with the South African artist whose self-portraits are currently on show at Nataal’s New African Photography II


The work of young South African photographer Nobukho Nqaba has looked at migration, movement and otherness as well as personal issues surrounding family and the fragility of home. After studying at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, she was the recipient of the 2012 Tierney Fellowship. She has garnered praise for her evocative self-portraits and performances and exhibited widely, including Lagos Photo 2015, Rencontres de Bamako, AKAA Paris 2016 and Duro Olowu’s Making and Unmaking at Camden Arts Centre in London. Nqaba has now followed the well-received series Umaskhenkethe, with her latest major body of work, Ndiyayekelela. It embodies her struggle to come to terms with the death of her father by posing with materiality that symbolises his life as a hard working minor. With these images currently on show as part of Nataal’s group exhibition, New African Photography II, we get to know Nqaba better.

When and why did you get into art and photography?
I became interested in photography in my first year of my fine art undergraduate degree. I made a pinhole camera from a box and it was amazing seeing the pictures come to life in the darkroom. This liberated me from the belief I had that painting and drawing were the only forms of art. Also, I had no photographs of myself as a child because my family did not own a camera, so a part of me wanted to make as many memories as I can now that I had access to the camera. And I made sure that those memories remain because I am always in my pictures!

How did you find studying at Michaelis?
It was challenging and a huge culture shock for me. It was the first time I was in a multi-racial set up and the first time I had to communicate with people in a second language. In my third year, when I chose photography as my major, my educators were patient, believed in me and pushed me hard.

What draws you to self-portraiture and performance?
My work is autobiographical so it makes sense to do self-portraits. No one can tell my story well but me. I can freely do all sorts of things to my own body without fears of exploiting others. Performance is a great tool in sending messages and meaning. It brings an immediate response to those watching. I want my narrative to be effective and that’s why I use performativity a lot.

Describe the motivations behind Ndiyayekelela.
In Ndiyayekelela I have worked with issues around mourning and letting go. I have looked at my father, who passed away in 2013, and explored the feelings that I have with regards to my loss. When someone passes away, those left behind tend to ask themselves questions that remain unanswered. In my case, I have been left feeling sad, guilty and most of all, confused. However, I also find comfort knowing that he is probably okay where he is. Ndiyayekelela was a cathartic experience and it took courage to even be able to put my feelings out there.

What messages do you hope visitors to the Red Hook Labs exhibition come away having seen your work?
I want them to insert their own story into the skeleton that I provide. My work is simply a starting point because it is based on my personal story, however through it people can find ways to deal with loss in their own way. I have heard people saying the work is poetic, and although that is not what I intended, I am happy about these conclusions. Also, I want people to know that although there are things that weigh us down, we have to find ways to let go. I always say we scream, shout, laugh, cry and find satisfaction through art; and that art can take on any form.

Who and what inspires you to create?
I am inspired by how people choose or are forced to live their lives; I focus on these life coincidences, when things are planned or unplanned and the results that come. I observe normal people doing everyday things and it is from there that I get inspiration and it is from there that I find traces of my past.

What have been some of your proudest moments so far?
There are so many things that have me made proud and humble. The best of them all though, is knowing that my work makes a difference and creates educational dialogues among people.

What are working on currently?
I am teaching digital photography and visual art, and I think I am now at my observing stage and something will come out maybe by the end of this year.

Nataal: New African Photography II runs from 4-14 May at Red Hook Labs, 133 Imlay St, Brooklyn, New York, open 10am-6pm daily

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Published on 05/05/2017