14 March 2018
14 March 2018 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
British-South African photographer Giya Makondo-Wills traces threads of identity to probe the impacts of colonialism on South African life.
The custom of ancestor worship manifests in the earthiest ways: the reading of bones to talk with the dead, prayers and chants that have passed through the generations, animal sacrifice - blood, dust and feathers at a man's feet. And then that pervasive sense of some transcendent entity looking after us from above.
In her work, They Came From the Water While the World Watched, British-South African photographer Giya Makondo-Wills undertakes a subtle exploration of the two identities she embodies, born from a British mother and South African father.
“The history of one side of my culture and my life has directly affected the history and the present of the other side of my life,” says Makondo-Wills, as these two elements of her heritage sparked in her an intense fascination.
Chronicling South African roots and pride, she explored how colonial imperialism made inroads into local culture and left deep impacts. Following it further, she dug into the interplay between the native practices of venerating the ancestors, still widespread in South Africa, and the influence of Christianity, imported by missionaries, on various aspects of daily life.
In the rural province of Limpopo, her father’s hometown, the two faiths coexist and collide. Through portraits, landscape, and symbolism, she explores this profound, radical conjunction between two creeds that are often at odds with each other and yet hard to untangle.
The photo of a column - an alien Greco-Roman element - is emblematic. A decorative motif common to Limpopo households, it also offers evidence of the colonial influences that spill into ordinary life.
The portraits - a fiery snake keeper, a solemn preacher who has founded his own church - convey the utmost respect: “I want to have people looking their best selves,” Makondo-Wills says, aiming to defeat the “Western gaze” of a time when European anthropologists took disparaging photos to convey exotic barbarism and primitivism. “I want to show the Africa that I see,” Makondo-Wills says, “not the Africa that you think you know.”
The project’s title offers a glimpse into the broader meaning of her work. Colonial violence to local life was met by global indifference. “It’s very emotionally draining sometimes, when you begin to think of all the wrongs which have been done to a place, to a country."
Still, Makondo-Wills celebrates those aspects of life that have survived the colonists’ greed - the authenticity of everyday life where a pastoral feel has been preserved. Three young men rest by a river, on the scorching rim of the region where colonists, fearing the heat, never dared to go. Healing the scars of their recent history, these men reclaim a new narrative that honors their resilience and strength, not just in their past but their present.
Giya Makondo-Wills is a British-South African documentary photographer based in Cardiff, U.K. Her practice looks at identity, colonisation and new perspectives regarding documentary photography and the western gaze. Follow her on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.