The South African photographer who believes in the healing power of art

Thandiwe Msebenzi and the power of positivity.

[I]n South Africa, Ulwaluko is the rite of passage through which Xhosa boys become Xhosa men. To mark their transition in society, for a period after the ritual they dress in an outfit of suit pants, a button-up shirt, a plaid or tweed blazer and a cap. The outfit is influenced by European dress that has been assimilated and given new meaning for the new men. For her graduate body of work at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, Thandiwe Msebenzi photographed these young men as a study on how colonialism has informed Xhosa masculinity. It was an important first step for the work that followed.

One day, not long after her graduation, Thandiwe returned home filled with emotion after being physically harassed by a man on the street. Her outrage moved her to create a self portrait to express how the incident had made her feel. In it, a grey plaid jacket hangs from a wire coat hanger completely masking her face and body except for her bare thighs. The image became the first in a new series, Awundiboni, which means “you don’t see me”, and the blazer has become a symbol for toxic masculinity in her work. “When I first made the image I was telling a painful story that had happened to me,” she says. “It changed as I met people and heard their stories.” One of the more potent images in the series is a photograph of the weapons that her grandmother keeps under her bed for safety.

Courtesy of Thandiwe Msebenzi

The scenarios in Awundiboni each translate a woman’s story of sexual harassment or abuse, from being cat-called on city streets to abuses that happen in the home, often shrouded in silence and shame. “There are things that we witness growing up that we’re not able to talk about,” Thandiwe says, “and the minute you start making work about it, you’re almost releasing yourself from the things that have been inside that you can’t verbally talk about. I think that’s why I created the work because I felt like we have to start breaking the silence. Not breaking the silence perpetuates rape culture. It’s the silence that really kills us.”

Rape culture is entrenched in South Africa, but it was a photograph by Ahmed Abd El-Latif in Egypt which stuck with Thandiwe and made her realise that this is a global issue. The image is of a woman in an ankle-length dress being groped by a teenage boy as she crosses a street in Cairo. In Johannesburg, South Africa, there have been incidences, and consequent marches in protest, of men harassing women, verbally and physically, at taxi ranks for wearing mini skirts. “That image really, really got to me because when you grow up as a woman you start to blame yourself… but I looked at this woman and she’s literally covered from head to toe, so clearly this has nothing to do with short skirts or showing your breasts – it’s just an excuse some men use.”

Courtesy of Thandiwe Msebenzi

Since creating this body of work, Thandiwe has presented it at conferences around the world, and, like the chorus of #metoo across the internet, the response has been an unravelling of more women’s stories of violation. When Thandiwe presented her work in Eindhoven last year, women came up to her afterwards to share their own stories, sometimes revealing things that they’d never told anyone. Thandiwe says, “I guess by creating images that I feel heal me, I’m healing someone else.” Men, though, tend to keep their distance: “Every time I present this work, men walk far away from me, they get so uncomfortable, they’re like ‘I’m not engaging with you right now!’” Initially this got her thinking about how to create work that allows men to be part of these discussions too, but she has come to the conclusion that their walking away is their chosen participation in the conversation.

Although her work is being made at a time when more and more women are speaking up about their experiences of assault – since the beginning of Awundiboni, the hashtag #menaretrash has sparked major conversation and controversy in South Africa – Thandiwe is wary about making work with the sole purpose of being relevant. For example, she says, “Making work about being a strong black woman is trending, everyone wants black girl magic, but there are people who have been doing this because it’s just their truth. And that comes through in the work.” Her art comes from the heart and when dealing with such raw subject matter, it’s been difficult to separate herself from her work: “When I started creating the project I became very sensitive to everything, I became sensitive to friends who I found were problematic, so I cut them out. I got so invested that I couldn’t even look at posts [on social media] that had anything to do with sexual harassment.”

Courtesy of Thandiwe Msebenzi

It can be a burden to hold up a mirror, but it’s also a way to process for Thandiwe, “These things affect me on a daily basis, and the only way to cope is to make work about it. Creativity is healing. So one day I may wake up and feel, you know what, this part is healed now. I’m ready to move on.” Until then, like eradicating rape culture, Awundiboni is an ongoing body of work.

Follow Thandiwe Msebenzi on Instagram here and see more of her photography in the gallery below.