A colloquial Zulu expression (Zulu is one of South Africa’s eleven official languages) that means “we are old, we are young” and is used when you can’t always tell a person’s age from their appearance, “Sidabala Sibancane” is the title of the exhibition by South African artist Lebogang Tlhako, still on view at the 2021 Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France. The goal of the show’s curator, Fulufhelo Mobadi, who was a photographer before becoming a curator and won a curatorial research grant for the Rencontres d’Arles and the French Institute’s Africa Projects, was to represent black women in the photography industry, “where our place is really tiny,” she said in an interview with the French institute.
Created as part of the incubator program called The Market Photo Workshop, the “Sidabala Sibancane” series, which was first shown on tote bags (the photographer wanted to move away from the traditional ways of displaying images) eventually made its way to an exhibition space. Through these collages where archival images she got from her mother overlap landscapes or cut-out portraits of children from her own community, the photographer paints an intimate portrait that brings back to life a nostalgia that is so dear to her. “Nostalgia is the main motivation behind this project, which I shot on film to lend it that timeless element,” says Lebogang Tlhako.
Tlhako, for whom fashion has always played an important role, is currently a member of the editorial team of The Nice Magazine, a magazine that provides a forum for the voices and creative works of African artists and whose third issue is devoted to South Africa. This is no coincidence for the photographer who, as a child, liked to cut out pages from magazines or other things that she loved. “It was therapeutic,” she says. In addition to her work as a photographer, Tlhako is active on two Instagram accounts: Sisterbozza, where she shares photographs of the clothes and jewelry she sells online, and Sho Ngwana, where she works with the artist Natik Gobe on various photographic series.
The photographs in “Sidabala Sibancane,” shot entirely on 35mm film, evoke the relationship Tlhako had with her mother and how the latter shaped and influenced the young girl; the way her mother always kept her suits in a chest, for instance, inspired several photographs. “Another influence was my mom’s photo album and the fabrics in her wardrobe. I also liked browsing my older sister’s photo album, which had cut out photos of flowers that she put next to those of clothes and pictures.” With “Sidabala Sibancane,” the photographer reconnects with her childhood, her family, her first joys and heartbreaks, while laying claim to her own story. “It’s self-exploration,” she says of her images, which could make up her own photo album.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
“Sidabala Sibancane,” Lebogang Tlhako. Jardin des Yoyageurs. Through September 26, 2021 (as part of the Rencontres d’Arles 2021).