Black and White - There weren't many places in apartheid South Africa where people could be themselves. Richard Ndimande's studio was an exception, says Ekow Eshun

In 1968, Richard Ndimande took over the running of the photographic studio Z.J.S. Ndimande and Sons. The studio had been founded by his father in 1940, and it had won a clientele among the black
residents of Greytown, in what is now the KwaZulu- Natal province of South Africa.

But what might have been a proud moment for Richard was, at best, bittersweet. This was also the year that the South African government enforced the Group Areas Act in Greytown. The law assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas. It gave the government power to displace anyone who was not deemed to be in the right area, breaking up homes, families and communities in the process. Greytown was designated a white district, and Richard was forced to move the studio to Enhlalakahle, a semi-rural location outside Greytown.

Business at the new site was poor. Customers found the location off-putting. You had to get a permit from a special office in town to travel there. Gangs of boys roamed the neighbourhood scaring visitors. Yet it was in Enhlalakahle, during the 1970s, that the captivating black-and-white photographs were taken. They will be offered as a single lot in Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African Art in March.

The pictures are formally staged portraits, in a simple setting. A dark curtain functions as a backdrop and a few props, such as a basket of plastic flowers, crop up on recurring occasions. In many pictures people wear Western clothes to striking effect, like the young man who leans on a stool,checked cap tilted at a rakish angle over one eye.
Or the two women who stand side by side, clad in matching sweaters, sunglasses and dark skirts, and have the same unsmiling expression. Due to its location, the studio's clients were mainly Zulu, and in some photos we see people posing for the camera in traditional beadwork ceremonial costumes, such as another pair of young women, also identically dressed, in headdresses and beaded necklaces, with cloths caped over their shoulders.

Photography took hold in southern Africa around the mid-19th century. Victorian-era images emphasised the exotic and the ethnographic, feeding Western fantasies of Africa as a place of primordial savagery. Images of the tribal warrior, the mother and child, the semi-naked black woman in 'nature' were popular fodder for postcards and prints.

But the influential curator, the late Okwui Enwezor has argued that photography in South Africa was only truly 'invented' in 1948, with the introduction of apartheid. Once racial segregation became embedded in the legal framework of South Africa, photography was transformed from ethnographic studies of 'native types' into a powerful social instrument. The camera became a tool of state control – blacks were required to carry at all times a passbook containing their photo, which stipulated where they were allowed to travel and work. And taking pictures also acted as a type of activism. Groups like the documentary photo collective Afrapix, whose members include now-celebrated figures such as Santu Mofokeng, Cedric Nunn, Lesley Lawson and Guy Tillim, bore witness to apartheid's vicissitudes, turning visual documentation of the period into a potent weapon in the liberation struggle.

Richard Ndimande's pictures were taken under circumstances of duress. But they have a pride and self-assertion to them that belies the context within which they were produced. Within the confines of the studio, a state of utopia reigns, free from the politics of race and space that governed daily life for black South Africans.

The individuals in Ndimande's portraits are able to choose how to dress, how to pose, how to represent themselves on film. Standing before the camera, they assert their full humanity. Who's to say, for example, why one woman has opted to be pictured wearing nothing but what seems to be her underwear. Is the image for a lover perhaps? Or is it, maybe, for herself – a memento of her youth that she can look back on in years to come?

Intriguingly, Ndimande's portraits sometimes carry a hidden message only intended for the original recipient of the photograph. A photo taken in 1975 shows a young woman in traditional dress holding an isibebe, a beaded panel necklace. Among the Zulu, beadwork is a craft that has historically been practised by girls and young women as a form of both decoration and communication.

Before the advent of mobile phones, a young woman making beaded jewellery might embed a secret message to a prospective male suitor into its design, using colours, patterns or sometimes wording understood only by the two of them. Jewellery containing 'Zulu love letters' was sent to young men working far from home due to the strictures of the Group Areas Act, which prevented them from living
in the cities with wives or girlfriends. Rather than send the jewellery itself by post, the young woman in Ndimande's studio sends a photograph. The isibebe reads zinhle zonke: "Everything is beautiful". She is happy with the status of her relationship. In another picture, a less-fortunate woman, perhaps spurned in love, wears a necklace whose beads spell out the bleak message imihlola yami, "It is my bad luck".

The intimacy and elegance of Ndimande's photographs brings to mind the images of other African portraitists of the same period. The best- known artists in the genre, such as Cameroon-born Samuel Fosso and the great Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, are lauded internationally. But, in recent years, photographers who worked anonymously for years in studios across the continent are starting to receive their due. A short list of names might include Sanlé Sory in Burkina Faso, Cameroon's Studio Jeunesse, Felicia Abban in Ghana and, in South Africa, S.J. 'Kitty' Moodley of Pietermaritzburg and Durban's Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall. In all their work, as well as that of Richard Ndimande himself, the studio becomes a site of thrilling artistic expression – a space where, not just sitters, but photographers are free to articulate themselves as fully, and freely, as possible.

Ekow Eshun is author of Africa State of Mind, a major new survey of contemporary photography from Africa, published by Thames & Hudson in March.

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