“He’s a a typical black gangster,” Sipho Gongxeka says. “Rings, cigarette, dark-skinned, and with a dope-ass suit.”
Sipho breaks into peels of laughter. The 24-year-old South African, who grew up on a Soweto township, is describing an image from his series Skeem’ Saka of a black man – his friend, it turns out – with bleached hair and a dapper double-breasted suit, smoke curling from his fingers, a separate chunk of precious metal on each.
Gongxeka, a former making-it footballer for South Africa’s lower leagues, identifies himself as a ‘fashion-documentary’ photographer. For motivation, he does not look much further than the streets of Soweto.
Gongxeka’s photographs are meditations, he says, on the “circular relationship” between the reality of black male life in township South Africa, mediated images of black culture (and how often they are associated with remorseless violence) and the insinuations of clothes. “A certain dress code does not necessarily accompany a certain mode of behaviour or personality,” he says.
Skeem’ Saka loosely translates as ‘Homeboys in the Township,’ an attempt, Gongxeka says, to capture relationships that go beyond friendship. His series’ includes self-portraits, with Gongxeka covered in bling and knocking back booze in a shot inspired by Wesley Snipes’ character Nino Brown from the 1991 American gangster film New Jack City.
The idea for Skeem’ Saka came from the Soweto-based TV shows he watched on television as a kid, with township life reflected back at him: “And the characters portrayed were seductive to me,” he says. “They were young people from the township, just like me. The only difference between them and me is that they embodied style and glamour. But, at the same time, they glorified criminality and prejudice towards women. I try and ask whether these images can serve as sources of motivation for real life gangsters.”
But there is something else, an anathema that remains implicit in Gongxeka’s work. For they subtly identify the issue of real and perceived racism within the politics of skin tone. Because, at least in the media, the harder the gangster, the darker the man. Spike Lee brought attention to this issue 16-years ago in his second feature film School Daze in 1988, yet it remains taboo.
Gongxeka name checks Yizo Yizo, the ongoing series set in an all-black high school in Johannesburg, as well as films like Tsotsi (which translates as Thug), whose director, Gavin Hood, is the only African director ever to be nominated for an Oscar. These stories, Gongxeka notes, are sunk in violence.
“We can’t depend on outsiders to tell stories of the township,” Gongxeka told The Citizen paper in South Africa. “We have a responsibility to tell our own stories. I am immersed in my subject matter as this is the community I grew up in and still live in, so I have a better understanding of it. Art has also allowed me to step back and look at it from another perspective.”
See more of Sipho’s work here.