Maverick Life


Intuition, trust and curiosity – how photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa captures his country

Intuition, trust and curiosity – how photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa captures his country
'Umgidi kwa Masango' by Lindokuhle Sobekwa (2015). Inkjet print on Baryta paper. (Image courtesy of Goodman Gallery)

The winner of the FNB Arts Prize 2023 speaks about his early discovery of photography as an art form, finding ways to tell the stories that matter most and working with spontaneous intuition.

Lindokuhle Sobekwa, born in 1995 in Katlehong, was bitten by the photography bug while still in high school. Through his participation in the Of Soul and Joy photography education programme in Thokoza in 2012, he understood photography to be an essential tool in telling the stories that interested him.

Sobekwa exhibited for the first time in 2013 as part of a group show organised by the Rubis Mécénat Foundation.

His photo essay Nyaope (2014) was published in the Mail & Guardian, in Vice magazine’s annual photo issue and in De Standaard in Belgium.

In 2015, Sobekwa was awarded a scholarship to study at the Market Photo Workshop. That same year Nyaope was exhibited in another group show, Free From My Happiness, for the International Photo Festival of Ghent. The exhibition toured South Africa and other sites in Belgium. A publication edited by photographer Tjorven Bruyneel also included a selection of his works.

Lindokuhle Sobekwa

‘Makhulu ehlakula egadini’ by Lindokuhle Sobekwa (2018). Inkjet print on Baryta paper. (Image courtesy of Goodman Gallery)

Sobekwa was selected by the Magnum Foundation for Photography and Social Justice in New York to develop the project “I Carry Her with Me”. In 2018, he received a grant from the Magnum Foundation Fund to continue his long-term project, Nyaope.

In October 2023, Sobekwa will visit Kenya on behalf of the Magnum Foundation in collaboration with the Edgelands Institute. The project combines academic research with community engagement, art and the work of Magnum photographers to ask what surveillance means in our everyday lives. Sobekwa has been selected to explore some of the themes and issues that surfaced in reports on the subject. He will also run a workshop to share skills with local photographers.

Mick Raubenheimer chatted with Sobekwa about his work and what it means to win the coveted FNB prize.

How and when did you settle on photography as the medium of your artistic expression?

Lindokuhle Sobekwa: It was through participating in various workshops with different photographers that I realised that photography wasn’t just about taking pictures of weddings or birthday parties.

Artificial intelligence will distort the concept of history and destroy the credibility of the artists.

It was also a way to tell my own stories – stories that concern me and the people I live with. I was very lucky I settled at a very early age. I knew what I wanted to do by the age of 17 thanks to all the incredible mentors I have had over the years and my supportive family.

Your photography has an almost painterly quality. How is this achieved?

LS: That’s a great compliment, thank you. My work is informed by what interests or concerns me. Intuition, trust and curiosity guide me. When I am on the ground I try to take not only aesthetically pleasing images but also images that address a certain issue. In a way, I am trying to reflect contemporary South Africa.

A striking feature of your work is the evocation of a dream-like, almost mystical element brought to otherwise everyday scenes. Tell us more about this.

LS: What is interesting about photography is that it doesn’t have a fixed meaning and is constantly interpreted differently by different people. When images go out in the world they move outside of your own interpretation as a photographer. When I go out I don’t have a fixed idea of what I will photograph. I try to be open-minded and just respond to what interests or concerns me. 

'Death of George Floyd' by Lindokuhle Sobekwa (2020). Inkjet print on Baryta paper. Image courtesy of Goodman Gallery

‘Death of George Floyd’ by Lindokuhle Sobekwa (2020). Inkjet print on Baryta paper. (Image courtesy of Goodman Gallery)

Which artists, in any genre, have had the most profound effect on your art and its development? 

LS: Ernest Cole – his work House of Bondage had a great influence on me growing up, as did Santu Mofokeng’s Chasing Shadows, David Goldblatt’s In Boksburg, Jim Goldberg’s Raised by Wolves and Dawoud Bey’s Night Coming Tenderly Black

It can be said that the visual arts, especially photography, is a dying art form because of public cameras and the rise of AI. What are your thoughts on this? 

LS: I think photography has had to always reinvent itself. Now everyone can access a camera on their phones. It’s easy to click the shutter, but to make meaning or create a photo essay with photography is very hard. There will always be a strong distinction that separates the two.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Apartheid horrors revisited – Ernest Cole’s ‘House of Bondage’ comes home

With regard to AI, it is a big concern not only to photography but to many art expressionists – writers, musicians, and so on. Artificial intelligence will distort the concept of history and destroy the credibility of the artists. Artists need to act on this quickly, but I am optimistic that we will surpass this period or come up with other ways of dealing with it.

Finally, what does it mean to you, having won the coveted FNB award for 2023?

LS: Winning the FNB Art Prize is the greatest validation an artist can ask for – especially at home, to be seen like that is such a great honour. Most often we get recognised outside of home. This is very special to me. DM

Sobekwa’s work will be exhibited until 10 September at the FNB Arts Fair in the Sandton Convention Centre.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.



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