Critics’ Picks

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

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.