The work of emerging South African Fine Art Photographer & Performance Artist Nobukho Nqaba is already resonating with an international audience.

Over the past few decades a new wave of South African artists have contributed to a vibrant contemporary arts scene that has turned its back on the historical, anachronistic European notions of fine art. Inspired by both contemporary and historical African issues, young South African talent is helping to shape the identity and values of their new democracy.

“As young people we find ourselves looking for identity in the new democratic South Africa,’ explains Nobukho Nqaba, a photographer, performer and visual arts teacher based in Cape Town, in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. At 23, Nqaba is already gaining international attention for her thought-provoking and highly original work.

Nobukho Nqaba and China Bags Nobukho Nqaba and China Bags

“Every artist should work with what…makes them itch and burn”

“Every artist should work with what inspires them and is close to their heart, what makes them itch and burn,” insists Nqaba. She goes on to explain, “I could have chosen to take pretty pictures of flowers and portraits of happy people but instead I am not scared to touch upon controversial issues because if no one addresses and speaks about them, we might as well be dead”. It’s this clarity of thought that has powered Nqaba to create such distinctive work.

Taking inspiration from her own life, objects resonant with memories as well as events and places around her, Nobukho Nqaba creates impactful art; works that often feature herself. One of her earlier projects, ‘Grabouw’ (2011) was created whilst she was an undergraduate at Michaelis School of Fine Art (University of Cape Town). This series saw Nqaba return to her childhood home, taking evocative photographs which captured objects of her upbringing. Born in Butterworth, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, in a community created as a segregated ‘Black Homeland’ during the apartheid era, Nqaba is the first member of her family to enter the Arts. “My family support me, although they may not fully understand what I do,” continues Nqaba. Her talent and insight has allowed her to reach beyond her local community, engaging with people in South Africa and beyond.

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Nobukho Nqaba Nobukho Nqaba and China Bags

Performance art…makes the audience aware of things in greater detail

In addition to her photography Nqaba brings her ideas to life through performance art – in public spaces in Cape Town, including the famous Waterfront. “It makes the audience aware of things in greater detail, it is live and effective,” says Nqaba.

Her rise to recognition has been especially driven by a later project called ‘Umaskhenkethe likhaya lam’ (2012). Known as ‘the China bag project’ these series of self-portraits explore both a very personal experience and one of global relevance – migration. “The photographs touch on a global issue, which is affecting almost every society around the world,” confirms Nqaba. “There is a lot of movement by people from their countries of birth to other countries; it is an issue that shakes up communities, creates fear, frustration and discomfort to both the migrant and the people of the places they move to.”

The distinctive Chinese manufactured plastic bags featured in the works, often referred to as ‘China bags’, are iconic of travel and migration around the world. In the Xhosa language the bags are colloquially known as Unomgcana meaning ‘the one with lines’, whilst Umaskhenkethe means ‘the traveller’. Throughout the world, the bags attract demeaning, alienating names.

For Nqaba these striking series of photographs reflect her own memories of growing up using the bag. “For me it represents a home. I have a love-hate relationship with the bag because for me it is a symbol of struggle… and at the same time it reminds me of where I came from, giving me more drive to succeed in life. Unomgcana has always been my companion, throughout my childhood life and journeys. It has been my comfort and my home”.

Nobukho Nqaba and China Bags Nobukho Nqaba and China Bags

She continues, “I am inspired by how people choose or are forced to live their lives; I focus on these life coincidences, when things are planned or unplanned and the results that come. I hope that when people look at my work they identify with these issues, so the work creates awareness and a dialogue that is worthy of being discussed.”

‘Umaskhenkethe likhaya lam’ has not only won the plaudits of critics (the works were shown at the Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland as part of the reGeneration3, an exhibit which is continuing to travel the world) but also won Nqaba the Tierney Fellowship, mentored by Svea Josephy and Jean Brundrit.

Nqaba has benefited from an inspiring education, including her graduate years at Michaelis School of Fine Art, and then during her postgraduate diploma in teaching, also at the University of Cape Town.

Now Nqaba is having her chance to discover and develop new talent through her work as a Visual Arts Teacher at the Frank Joubert Art Centre (FJAC). The Centre offers a variety of art classes, further education and training, as well as the innovative ‘Ibhabhathane project’, a Non-Profit Organisation of the Frank Joubert Art Centre that offers support to disadvantaged schools. “Teaching is both an inspiration to me and an opportunity to nurture future artists. The level of honesty in my students work really motivates me,” explains Nqaba.

“Most of us learn about the past in history books and from our parents, but we also have traces of it in our daily lives. As we navigate through our everyday lives, we try to make sense of it. I believe art acts as a great tool in self-expression; we scream, shout, laugh and smile through our creative ways, whether by dance, music, poetry and some form of visual art.”

Image copyright Nobukho Nqaba, umaskhenkethe likhaya lam 2012

Text by @andrewaforbes

Nqaba’s works can be see online and at the following exhibitions:

LagosPhoto: Design Festival 2015
(Nigeria: October 24 – 27 November 2015)

Bamako Encounters 2015 10th Edition
(Mali: 31 October – 31 December 2015)

reGeneration3: Foto México Festival
(Mexico: 31 October -15 February 2016)



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