The Portfolio: Khaya Ngwenya

In 2010, I was working at City Press as a photojournalist. That year, for the June 16 commemorations, my brief was to cover the cleansing ceremony. I was up early and was at a cleansing ceremony that was happening around Vilakazi Street in Soweto, Orlando West. 

During the proceedings, I noticed this woman, a sangoma, ekhwifa kamnandi. She was drinking from a calabash and spraying the contents into the air as part of the ritual. 

During the ritual, izangoma drink umqombothi and intelezi, and call on the spirits of those who have passed. At some point, the woman was walking down the road and the sun was shining on her face, giving the liquid coming out of her mouth that goldish tint. From a distance, I walked parallel to her.

That’s how I was able to capture the spraying. She was completely  unaware that I was shooting.

The image, especially in the context of that day, portrays a spirituality and a reverence for the dead that, although not widely recognised, is still there. People maintain those beliefs and live by them. Some people — people who were not black, in particular — said the picture was disgusting. Some took it as if she was vomiting, which showed their insensitivity to people’s beliefs. 

To me, there are other significant aspects to this image. The fact that she is wearing the skin of iwule [a deer], for instance — I took that to speak to her stature as a healer.

My approach to photography has always been to rely on available light, and to consciously position myself to get good lighting, and to anticipate how the subject will move and what I will do in response.

Chiefly, my style evolved into a very focused study of exploiting natural light while staying in motion. It’s very different from posing a subject. It’s a reliance on nature while waiting for the perfect moment. So it involves taking a lot of pictures to get that perfect frame.

In another sense, my main motivation was the beauty of colour. Colour touches me in a very specific way and it drives how I make images. In fact, it’s a trinity of colour, lighting and features. I have shot a lot of profiles, especially those of women. The features fascinate me and, especially in the context of KwaZulu-Natal, reveal traces of origins and identity. You can tell a lot about where people come from by looking at the specific shape and positioning of izinhlanga on their faces. 

Specific practices — zezihlanga and others, like piercing the ears — are disappearing, so they form a huge part of my archive. In the next 20 or 50 years, my archive will hopefully serve as a beacon we can look back to, to see where we come from. 

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