Photographer Victor Dlamini’s work is a celebration of some of the most salient figures on the continent, amplified through his extensive collection of African art and in the hundreds of images he has captured over 30 years.
Gordan Parks’s film Shaft is what Victor Dlamini brings up when he talks about where his initial love ofphotography came from. ‘I was struck by how beautifully the movie was shot,’ Dlamini says. ‘At the time, I had no sense of photography as art, but the way the tight shots were done, and the interiors and décor really made an impression on me.’
The genesis of Dlamini’s photography career can be traced back to his time working as a journalist in Durban. Often, the photographers he worked with while covering stories worked on a tight schedule and would take the pictures quickly, before moving to the next story. ‘I noticed that once the interview was over and you were sharing tea with the person you had photographed, the pressure was off. That was when the subject was relaxed enough to be their truest self.’
That led Dlamini to think about his own eye, and, specifically, portraiture. This is where his main interest lies – in capturing a person’s truest nature. His earliest memory of taking a portrait was in 1993, during an interview with Nokukhanya Luthuli, Chief Albert Luthuli’s widow. The portrait was in black and white and on film. ‘When I opened the newspaper on Sunday, that was the image that was used,’ he remembers. ’I never looked back.’
Dlamini’s focus on portraiture has seen him photograph artists, writers and musicians from the continent and the diaspora. He is inspired by three South African photographers: Koto Bolofo, Alf Khumalo and George Hallett. ‘Hallett inspired me with the series of portraits he did for Heinemann’s African Writers series. I see my work as a homage to him.’
While Dlamini’s lens is often turned on the ‘greats’, he is currently working on a series titled The Next Generation, which focuses on young people who he believes are on their way to becoming important figures in their fields. ‘We live in a very visual age and sometimes the portraits we see of people are carelessly done. I try to get the young people to relax and be themselves, which allows me to make ambitious portraits of them – something that captures their curiosity,’ he says.
Dlamini is drawn to the unusual, both in the art he collects and in his own photography. He also prefers to take risks in his practice. ‘I will sometimes have my subject’s face totally in shadow. It adds a sense of mystery. When you look at the photo over time, it reveals something new.’
Dlamini’s choice to shoot mostly in black and white is his way of bringing more depth into a picture. And while he sometimes does shoot in colour, he washes the colour down so as not to overwhelm the image. ‘I am interested in texture because that is your extra layering,’ he says. ‘We human beings are more complex than what we give ourselves credit for.’
Dlamini’s studio in Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, is home to an impressive collection of work by artists from across the continent. He acquires between 20 and 30 new pieces of art a year and his family owns a sizeable collection. He also moves art between his home and studio. ‘I really do believe that the art you live with is the art you love,’ he says. ‘All my art is from Africa and by Africans. My interest is in the work that African artists do – they reflect what I am interested in and their subject matter touches me personally.’
Dlamini owns a few pieces of art by Blessing Ngobeni, whose work he has collected for several years. He describes himself as a ‘dedicated collector’ of Esther Mahlangu’s work. Art by Cameroonian Joël Mpah Dooh, El Hadji Sy from Senegal, Colbert Mashile and the portrait artist Nelson Makamo also features in his studio. Artists who are currently on his radar include Sibusiso Nkosi, a young artist from Mpumalanga who makes ceramic homages to the #FeesMustFall movement, and artists Colbert Mashile, Sthenjwa Luthuli and Zanele Mashinini, whose work he describes as ‘incredible mixed media pieces of art’.
The studio also functions as a hub for other creatives. He has hosted different events here, from music launches to film sets and private dinners for travellers from across the continent. Part of what he wants to do with his studio is to create a space to teach young black photographers how to shoot on film. A place where young people can find their voices. ‘I believe studios are more interesting when they are collaborative spaces,’ he says.
Dlamini is excited about being on the continent during this moment in time. ‘Africa as a continent is very fast and it is difficult to talk about anyone movement,’ he says. ‘But when I look at the work of artists from the continent working across the world, from your Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies to your Laduma [Ngxokolos], my sense is that there is an emergence of an unapologetic celebration of who we are – an aesthetic that says that we do not need approval from anyone.