Critics’ Picks

Phumzile Khanyile, Plastics Crowns, 2016, ink-jet print, 31 x 43".

Phumzile Khanyile, Plastics Crowns, 2016, ink-jet print, 31 x 43".


Phumzile Khanyile

Photo Workshop Gallery
138 Lilian Ngoyi St (old Bree St), Newtown
February 8–March 19, 2017

It helps to know that Soweto, South Africa–born photographer Phumzile Khanyile, whose debut exhibition caps a year of playful self-interrogation with a camera, doesn’t have a regular look: Her personal style is an elaborate work in progress. In one of the thirty-two photographs collectively titled “Plastic Crowns” (all works 2016) inaugurating the Market Photo Workshop’s new premises, the artist wears a merlot-colored wig and titular headpiece while inflating a pink balloon, her cheeks swollen like a trumpet player at work. The wig is not a prop: Khanyile—who was born in 1991, two years after David Goldblatt founded this photo school—sometimes wears this adornment as part of her daily doings. This show, though, the culmination of a yearlong mentorship with American portraitist Ayana V. Jackson, includes a quartet of grainy sepia nudes, sans wig.

Installed in clusters on red-painted walls, Khanyile’s photographs are irregularly framed and interspersed with mirrors. The politics of black hair is a recurring point of exploration, as is the role of birthright and commodity culture in fashioning a temporal sense of self. In another self-portrait, she wears a red shoe belonging to her mother; only her left leg is visible. The largest framed photograph is a minimal composition featuring a single luxury-brand cigarette with gold trim and cursive lettering. The domestic-scale identity politics is very Instagram but also broadens the corpus of postdocumentary-style photography introduced by earlier graduates of this workshop, notably Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko and Musa Nxumalo. Khanyile’s work tracks wider, recalling the awkwardness of Francesca Woodman’s frail self-imaging and the commodity fetishism of Guy Bourdin—names you wouldn’t associate with this storied school of photography whose graduates include Zanele Muholi and Jodi Bieber. Her exhibition marks a new chapter.