The Portfolio: Themba Mbuyisa — ‘If you’re going to look at me, I am going to look at you’

When we gaze into the eyes of the subjects in Themba Mbuyisa’s portraiture, the emotions that reside there range from defiance to stoicism, contentment and even smugness. In most of the frames, subjects occupy the centre, squared up to the camera in a face-on position. Some arms are folded, some hands are crossed, others rest at their sides, but these confrontational postures elicit no pity, instead forcing the viewer to meet the subject on level terms. 

“If you are going to look at me, then I am going to look at you,” says the ochre-encrusted visage of the grandmother whom we have interrupted from tilling. On her right, a boy young enough to be her grandson tugs at his sleeve. These two represent the age profile of the bulk of the subjects in When Breadwinners Are Away, with the exception of the teenager in one image.

He is fast approaching an age at which he will have to leave Mandeni to enhance his prospects, for the rural community is hardest on the young to middle-aged, who have no option but to remain there. Time alters nothing as poverty defies the laws of physics by resisting change: a constant everywhere else.

The cycle repeats: grandparents raise grandchildren while the nucleus remains absent, like the family of the forlorn child in the red and white hooped dress. Her expression is unflinching and accusatory as she stands superimposed against a bed of bushes, emphasising the loneliness of her daily fight to mean something in a wild world. Bare legs wear the scrapes of brushes with obstacles that will trip her into adulthood, but her dress is grimly rolled up at the sleeves because she has no option but to meet them.

Education is the key to success, we are told, and the path out of poverty, so children are wiped down by grandparents, packaged in uniform, and sent down that uncertain path, as the first portrait in this series depicts. One cannot dismiss the scepticism on those three faces. Perhaps it is a distrust of a stranger behind a lens, but it also reads as a mistrust of the world, having been abandoned by parents at an early age. In the absence of primary caregivers, will the rural education system retain these children until matric, or will they be derailed by teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and crime?

A young girl poses “like a model at the end of a runway”.  (Photo: Themba Mbuyisa)

South Africa is built on sad Black stories, but unhappy endings are not guaranteed, as Mbuyisa reminds us with the sixth image in the series. It depicts a young child full of charisma, posing like a model at the end of a catwalk. Behind her is a kid goat, which is just as curious and innocent as the child. Yes, we know that the kid is bred for slaughter, but while we are alive and are young, there is opportunity for spunk and resilience. We need not cower because conditions appear a certain way. Self-expression is a readily available tool in the quest to self-actualise. 

This story was originally written for the Contemporary Archive Project

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