Between the map and the empire, we make ourselves human…

Nonzuzo Gxekwa is a photography-based artist who lives and works in Johannesburg. She was born and raised in eMnambithi, KwaZulu-Natal, in 1981 and arrived in Johannesburg in 2006. Her new retrospective publication is a meditation on Johannesburg, its space, its people and its practices.

Nonzuzo’s work is the most contemporary of a long and radiant tradition of South African photography. It is a tradition whose ways have been illuminated by beacons such as Alf Kumalo, Ernest Cole, Andrew Tshabangu and many others working against particular sets of constraints and responding to particular sets of needs and sensitivities. Nonzuzo’s response to the call of this tradition is a redemptive and generous dialogue about black people, deviance, love and necessity. In this publication, Nonzuzo presents the CBD of Johannesburg as a well-practiced site and subject to house the ambitions, beliefs and desires of black people against the intent of Johannesburg’s mapmakers and architects.

Photo: Nonzuzo Gxekwa.

To speak of space in Johannesburg is to speak of the remnants of a maniacal obsession with delimitation, compartmentalisation, binaries and the notion of separation. Johannesburg was founded in 1886 after the discovery of gold spawned a gold rush that relied on cheap black labor to succeed. When the townships of Soweto were founded in the 1930s, they would be placed on the other side of the mining dumps which acted as an abyssal line obscuring the view of the city, representing the end of the world and the beginning of the wastelands destined for Townships South Africans.

Under apartheid, the city was declared a “whites-only zone”. On one side of the dumps, the man-made forest of Johannesburg engulfs the inhabitants in a Jacaranda purple dream of human rights, constitutionalism and social justice, while downstream from the dumps, the townships are defined as a place without space of violence, social violence, death and despair. The flight of whites from the city began in the 1980s when racist group area law enforcement became lax and the urgency to leave the city increased soon after the collapse of the apartheid. This is when the city of Johannesburg came to be understood colloquially as a “black zone”.

The failed apartheid baasskap The project sought to organize and dictate all of reality and fix people in races, geographical locations, professions, sexuality and beliefs. He claimed to organize people into hierarchies of beings, to divide and subdivide people and spaces into kaleidoscopic boxes of shame and power, powerlessness and sadism, and claimed this was done in the name of God.

Photo: Nonzuzo Gxekwa.

Today, between dilapidated Victorian and Edwardian architectural buildings with pink bloodstains in their window frames (rumored to have been accidentally destroyed by guerrilla artwork), moving through routes they keep pinned to the ground through repetition and iteration, you will see Black people in Toyota minibus taxis. A few years ago a campaign sponsored the sale of the Toyota Quantum to replace many old and unsafe taxis, but every once in a while you see a well-maintained 1989 Toyota HiAce nine-seater in candy red or off-white classic with white. walls on the tires, doing what he’s always done – changing people’s lives.

Nonzuzo’s work shows us how we can turn to the philosophy of Ubuntu to restore that humanity that has been vandalized within us.

The minibus taxi industry in South Africa was deregulated in 1986 by the apartheid government in full privatization where they “issued licenses like confetti”. The industry was deregulated with the aim of destabilizing race relations and instigating public violence that would demobilize the movement to vote the apartheid government into power. Today, taxis carry more than 15 million people a day (a quarter of South Africa’s population), earning around R49 billion each year in cash.

Photo: Nonzuzo Gxekwa.

Nonzuzo’s work organizes these narratives – concerned with the power of the state, the objectification of people, their precariousness and their will to live – specifically to demonstrate people’s attempts to configure new grammars and times of being that n require neither humanity, nor freedom, nor love. Instead, his work sees people refusing to acknowledge any authority that claims to cast them out of humanity by foreshadowing a liberation that is yet to come and casting aside whatever cast them down in the city of Johannesburg.


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In an environment as hostile and conflictual as the city of Johannesburg, the artist presents us with counter-narratives aware of the fact that politics is personal. She shows us queers enjoying the elusive sunlight in what could be a small flat in Braamfontein, an elderly woman probably on her way to church and walking between train tracks under the Mandela Bridge, people chasing God in a park behind the Telkom tower and taxi drivers moving people’s lives through the city. Against the specter of dehumanizing passes, haunted by the old building of John Vorster Square and street names that hide ghosts, through his subjects, Nonzuzo demonstrates how we make ourselves human in the city. She captures the liminal space created by people between the map and the empire of the map where people have come to become something, run away from something, kiss and fuck and plot, sit and eat, think , hide, express themselves and be recognized as a necessary part of the whole.

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Amid all that Johannesburg means, Nonzuzo shows us two people, believed to be a man in brown and a woman all in white, both in seemingly religious attire. One imagines the man greeted with concerted respect when he said “sanibonaniand she honored that recognition by responding, “yébo, sanibona” before asking directions to Noord Taxi Rank. By indicating the way out, she wraps him in dignity and certainty, she prepares a future for him and shows him the way. You can imagine the warmth of his gratitude, perhaps he bowed a little, making himself all the smaller the more his head was above hers before following her instructions.

Photo: Nonzuzo Gxekwa.

This is why Nonzuzo’s work is so important. She delivers a critical assessment of Ubuntu’s philosophy that dismisses it as a neoliberal rhetorical device that appeases the cause of freedom, but instead shows us that it is a litmus test that measures and produces humanity. Nonzuzo’s work shows us how we can turn to the philosophy of Ubuntu to restore that humanity that has been vandalized within us.

Exploring Nonzuzo’s work, one might consider the ways in which history and geography mediate how we create our present; what survival and prosperity tactics are employed by Black people to navigate the anti-Black physical and social architecture; how can we participate in a meaningful way in the production and renewal of humanity in spaces that vandalize it.

This publication therefore opens up the prospect of redemption for all that the city of Johannesburg has done to the integrity of psyches, to the color of our blood, to lovers, to children, to bone mineral density, to women, to them and ours . This is how we can become human again. DM

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