Words by Mercia Tucker
Austin Malema has grown to become one of the most revered photographers in SA. Coined by Khutso Theledi late last year, the hashtag #EverybodyDeservesAnAustinMalemaPicture has become a testament to the calibre of artist he is and the esteem that he’s held in the South African entertainment landscape.
The lens that he views his photography through is one of elevation. “I’ve always seen Africa as very unique… We always say everything is unique and diverse but my photography is not to celebrate ‘poor Africa’. I will never try and make photography that makes Africa look like it’s poor, as white people usually drive the narrative of ‘poverty porn’. I can never celebrate that.”
“I think my photography celebrates our blackness, or our Africanness, in a high-fashion sort of manner. I don’t think I ever want to capture anything to do with South Africa as poverty porn, I don’t think that’s what I’ll ever do. I always try and make sure that however I celebrate or however I capture my photography of Africa, or South Africa, it’s always in its highest form or in a celebratory form; it will never just be to say ‘oh look at us, we’re poor and we can’t do 1,2,3’. No, we’re beyond that. I want to capture the beauty of Africa.”
While primarily known for his work in entertainment photography, he’s determined to show us that he’s so much more. He held his first solo exhibition earlier this year, [creditthephotographer], which saw him move into that direction. “I’d love to move into the space of creating African artworks with African people. Most of my artwork – a lot of people might not know it, or some might not know it – but it was about where I was at a certain point in my life when I created the work for the exhibition and by using black faces to try and represent the beauty found in the chaos of where I was. Also, the chaos of where I was [in] my mental state. I used really dark models to try and show the beauty of that.”
Wanting to move into more artistically conceptual work, he believes that we need to celebrate black photographers in that space more. “A lot of white guys use black faces – white photographers – they use black faces, make them darker, make them as bold as they want and they get celebrated for it.” He adds “White people have found a way to make us a commodity in every way that they can use it, but for us as black people to celebrate ourselves is so much harder but when white people do it we celebrate ourselves so much more.” Reiterating that he respects white photographers in the industry and doesn’t want to attack them, he feels that the stories of black people need to be in black artistic hands.
He still experiences other challenges in his work. “The biggest part of my passion is hindered by access. We don’t have access to travel, to do certain things. The second thing is that I don’t get booked for certain things because a lot of people say that I’m an entertainment photographer. Why can’t [the perception around his work] be beyond that?” He adds “People have boxed me into that space and hence why I tweeted that I don’t want to be in entertainment anymore, I don’t want to be a celebrity photographer anymore, I’d love to move into the bigger space where people can see your work for other things.”
Speaking about the stories he wants to tell through his photography, he says his solo exhibition was just the tip of the iceberg. “I still want to travel Africa and shoot the uniqueness and the beauty found in the continent in the highest form of fashion and in terms of high fashion photography.”
Working with Afropunk in Johannesburg at the end of the year will allow him to showcase the beauty of the African people. “I’ve always felt like they allow, or they pushed a lot of great work that is Afrofuturism-driven. I feel like the platform on its own would be great to re-invent yourself and show yourself to other people.”
The beauty of the platform is owed to the authenticity of expression in it. “Afropunk, for me, has just been about a lot of young black people owning their uniqueness in who they are in terms of not trying to be boxed into one, sort of, belief. How did we infuse Afrofuturism, or Africanness, into a punk way? How did we get that to happen? That’s one of the biggest things. But I think Afropunk, in terms of uniqueness, means accepting who you are, accepting your uniqueness and celebrating it, being bold about who you are.”
Freedom and ambition; revered by many, these are traits that Austin Malema strives to embody everyday.
You can find Austin alongside a host of other artists in the creative fields closing off the year at Afropunk Johannesburg on the 30th and 31st December on Constitutional Hill. With a variety of packages sold, tickets can be bought here.