When you discover Lulu Mhlana’s work and how she strikes a balance in the delicate intersection between heritage and identity in photography and the arts, you immediately want to attempt to get into the head of this inspired mind. We attempted to do just that. And the more you find about Lulu, you quickly realise that you stumbled upon one of the most versatile creators you wish you had known already.
I use the word “discover” very deliberately here because it’s not so much discovering the artist than it is crossing over into a wave of thinking and exploration of expression that transforms you. In her body of work ‘Ubumnyama Bam: Shades of Black’ that explores identity and self-love, Lulu Mhlana turns the lens on herself.
This is one of those instances in which art, more so the art of photography, makes society take another look at itself. Lulu captures the mind of her audiences enthrallingly and uses her artistic eye to raise the human body beyond the mainstream portrayal of beauty.
We asked her how ‘Ubumnyama Bam: Shades of Black’ evolved from a personal project of courage and expression to an exhibition that began conversations across various parts of the creative industry.
Congratulations on being part of the PH Centre Photo Gallery and Bookstore exhibition. Did you achieve what you had set out accomplish with it?
Mhlana: Thank you! The current exhibition in Cape Town is a group exhibition with nine amazing female photographers, including myself, titled ‘Point Blank.’ It aims to showcase how photography and activism collide. I was approached by the curator at PH Centre Photo Gallery and Bookstore to be part of it. The show examines how photographers go beyond facts and figures, covering diverse views and topics that are often deeply personal. I believe that we have achieved the end goal in presenting the exhibition truthfully; every photographer distinctly focuses on societal issues that are personal to them.~
How and where did ‘Ubumnyama Bam: Shades of Black’ begin?
Ubumnyama Bam began this year in Cape Town. However, it developed more during my time as an artist in residence in Durban.~
I initially took the portraits to partly explore the technique of ‘self-portraits’ and to tell my story using my body. I wanted to see a true representation of the black female body in mainstream media.
My portraits are, and will continue to be, my personal archive – a record of my existence.
1/3.I think criticism comes with the territory. When you follow a creative career many people become skeptical of your future, as it is not an easy industry to make it in, and most times it isn't stable. Its not easy dealing with criticism about something you put your heart into.— LuluM #NoLabels (@LuluM_93) June 7, 2018
How do you strike the artistic and photographic balance between showing the true beauty of people while capturing them unclothed?
It’s easy and challenging at the same time. It’s easy because there is so much beauty to be captured and challenging because when someone is unclothed, they are in a vulnerable state.~
So, you need to approach an image with utmost respect for the person in front of the camera. It takes a lot of patience, something I’m still learning, but the more images I take of myself, the more I understand how someone else feels when they’re unclothed in front of the camera.
With many of us being self-conscious of our bodies, how do you manage to capture such elegant shots?
Patience, I guess.~
Before I make an image, I need to know why. My self-portraits are accompanied by emotions; I can’t take an image if I don’t feel first.
Most of the time I make images of parts of myself and my body that I am self-conscious about, which made me become more comfortable with myself.
How would you characterise or describe your signature style as a photographer?
I always find it difficult to describe my style, but I’d say it’s archiving the black body.~
Your work carries the brave use of shadows and contrasts, in my view, which adds character and distinctness. How does this convey your expression as an artist in the work?
Black, as colour, and melanin has contrasts and shadows. This is both literally and figuratively, so my work is bound to be characterized by these two elements. The majority of my images are in black and white, which is a conscious decision I make when processing my work. I love this style because, I think it brings ‘stillness’ to an image. Colour comes with movement and distraction which is not a bad thing. For most of my images; I prefer stillness and quietness; isithunzi.~
What was the most fascinating photo for you to capture?
One of the first images I captured back in December 2015 in my hometown of Mount Frere, KwaBhaca, was of initiates returning from initiation school. This was just after going through the initiation process, known as ulwaluko in isiXhosa. It was beautiful.~
Why was this the most interesting one for you?
What I find most fascinating about this image, which I still remember clearly, is how afraid I was. It was during my first days of photography and handling a camera, but the initiates were so composed and disciplined.~
I captured an image of an initiate looking straight into the camera, which was surprising because at that moment I had my eye on the viewfinder. In a way, our eyes met, and as soon as he looked into the camera, I instantly pressed the shutter button. The image is out of focus, so technically, I did a bad job, but somehow, to this day today, it’s one of my favourite images.
Where do you draw inspiration for your work from?
I stay curious about photography. I still research, read and watch videos about the art. I look into adding to my formal education as well. I also look into and follow what other photographers are doing and how. I try my best to surround myself with photographers and other creatives to stay in the loop.~
If you could photograph, who would you choose to have in front of your lens?
Noncedo Charmaine Gxekwa~
Why this person?
Not only do I love her images, but I think capturing her essence would be a bit of a challenge for me and challenges make me better by increasing my experience.~
If you could work with any two photographers in South Africa, who would you choose?
Lindeka Qampi and Professor Zanele Muholi~
Why these two people?
I choose these two photographers because, for starters, they make the most amazing images and/or self-portraits. I also think they have done a great job to pave the way and open doors for my generation of black female photographers – directly and indirectly. In addition, I am grateful to have been mentored by both of them.~
Follow Lulu Mhlana’s work on Instagram for the latest images and inspired works.