Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko
by Tracy Murinik (February, 2007)
Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko first came under the South African spotlight when she was nominated for the MTN New Contemporaries award in 2003. But it was during the 2006 group exhibition of contemporary African photography, 'Snap Judgments', at the ICP, New York, curated by Okwui Enwezor, that Veleko came to international attention. Her signature Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder series of bold, funky street fashion portraits captured the New York public's imagination - affording them a glimpse of youth culture and fashion in South Africa, and providing a contemporary face to extend to Africa as a whole.
It is precisely this double-edged strategy that Veleko employs in her work that makes her images memorable and powerful, and which forms the basis of much of her thematic underpinning. Her photographic projects pose questions around how identity is perceived, and often assumed, and at the same time of how her subjects use their clothes to construct their guises of identity. She also questions perceived notions of beauty in this regard - her lens directed at those around her, but also, regularly, back on herself. Veleko trained in graphic design at the Cape Technikon, and in photography at the Market Photography Workshop. One of her earliest projects was titled www.notblackenough.lolo, exploring perceptions in South Africa of mixed heritage, again using clothes as critical props to deliberately challenge assumptions of identity based on appearances and historical background.
'In 2002 I started a project that I'd always wanted to tackle, being the whole identity thing of how other black people see me, which turned into a project www.notblackenough.lolo, and I made it personal because when I interviewed people who were from mixed relationships, or were so-called 'coloured', they weren't happy, or ready, to speak about their backgrounds...
'I've been called too thin to be a black girl; not black enough; I roll my words; asked where did I go to school? and that sort of thing; told that I don't walk like a black person. I don't know where those things come from, but it was all black people saying this to me - the black people that I grew up with, my teachers at school too...
'In one of the (www.notblackenough.lolo) portraits... I look totally English: with this wig, standing in a pose looking high and mighty saying, "I am what I am. I'm all that you need". When people see that image, they don't think it's me. I notice this on a daily basis that people struggle to keep up with what I look like... I'm so much of a chameleon. So I'm ready to say, if people call me "coloured", or if people call me not black enough, I'm all this, I'm all that you need. This is Lolo.'
I'm totally urban, and I love what happens in urban environments, therefore my work is not far-fetched. It's something simple, something that people know, but that they don't actually think is that important until they've seen it in a photograph. Somehow photography seems to make it more important, and have people think about it. My work is really just fun, and interspersed with many layers - it could be complicated, but I try not to let it go there!...
'I named my project Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder because other people, when they saw those people dressed up like that, would ask: "How can you dress up in yellow pants and a lime green jersey with stripes?" And I thought the way I see beauty and the way I perceive beauty might be different to someone else next to me... So the project is called Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, because for me they are beautiful. I was excited [by them] § I didn't care what anyone else was saying... It was all about drawing attention around issues of beauty. And it was also about street fashion... But I don't think that they're just performing themselves; I've lived it. I used to be one of those people...
In some of my other projects I look at fashion and how it constructs identity, because fashion really plays with identity a whole lot... But now when it comes to one's own true identity in South Africa it becomes problematic, especially when it comes to mixed relationships and mixed background. And I didn't want to deal with it from that point of view... it was safe to deal with it from a fashion point of view because nobody actually thinks that they're doing this. But actually we're all doing it! It's really fun. And that's how I always look at fashion. It's like play. My clothes aren't me. And people who really know me, know me. But people who think they know me, know my style...
'It was a shock - an awakening shock - to come upon the bursting contemporary colours worn by the fashion-struck people portrayed by Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko on the streets of Johannesburg.
Mark Stevens, 'What Does Africa Look Like?' in New York Magazine Art Review, http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/16566/
'Take the young South African photographer Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko's street shots of Johannesburg hipsters dressed in electric, Kool-Aid colours. Their incorrigible chic and appropriations of Western icons - a clutch purse made of pressed Coca-Cola cans, camouflage knickers, red fishnet stockings - proclaim them heirs to Ke dandified Bamakois bourgeoisie. If independence has a style, this is it - vivid, highly individualised, and a touch defiant. These images are antidotes to the prevailing view of the "dark continent" as a place of entropy and despair; these are people in charge of at least their own sartorial destiny.
Leslie Camhi, 'A Cacophonous Affair - From the austerely documentary to the resolutely fabulist' in The Village Voice, March 17, 2006, http://www.villagevoice.com/art/0612,camhi,72570,13.html
It's been a busy start to the year for Veleko. The first couple of months of 2007 see her work included on 'Reality Check', an exhibition of contemporary South African photography at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK) in Berlin, curated by Pam Warne of Iziko South African National Gallery. Veleko's portraits also feature significantly alongside the acclaimed late Malian photographer, Seydou Keita, at Danziger Projects, New York, in 'Seydou Keita and Lolo Veleko. Fashion'.
Says the press release: 'Veleko's portraits, continuing and updating Keita's tradition, show her subjects to be highly individualised and independent and suggest an implicit collaboration between artist and sitter. There is nothing haphazard in the choices of dress or pose or in the execution of the photographs.' And locally, you can still catch her Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder photographs on 'Women: Photography and New Media - Imaging Self and Body through Portraiture', at Johannesburg Art Gallery until the end of February.
2006 saw Veleko hitting the broader international circuit, showing work on 'Personae & Scenarios - the new African photography' at Brancolini Grimaldi Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome, Italy; 'Olvida Quien Soy - Erase Me from Who I Am' at the Centro Atlantico de Arte Mordeno in Las Palmas, Canary Islands; on 'Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography', at the ICP in New York; 'Bieler Fototage: Physiognomie', Museum Schwabe, in Biel, Switzerland and on 'International contemporary photography: the living is easy' at the Flowers East Gallery in London. On the home front she also showed on 'Second to None', curated by Gabi Ngcobo and Virginia MacKenny at Iziko SANG in Cape Town, and 'Freestyle: Sanlam Fashion Week 2006' at Afronova in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Veleko's work was also featured in the book, published in 2006, Women by Women, 50 years of Women's photography in South Africa, edited by Robin Comley, George Hallett and Neo Ntsoma.
Veleko's earlier work, including the photographs that got her nominated for 'MTN New Contemporaries' in 2003, covered various other identity grounds, documenting graffiti in Cape Town and Johannesburg, capturing the social and political ethos of the post-1994 era. On naming the series of graffiti works, 'The ones on top won't make it Stop!', Veleko comments: 'I wondered about that statement: who are the ones on top? And John Fleetwood (from the Market Photo Workshop) suggested to me that it could be government, it could be the other graffiti writers; it could be me. Because when I come and photograph it, it doesn't stop there either.'
Veleko's work is set to feature on 'TRANS CAPE' in Cape Town in March. Veleko has also been awarded a two-month residency with the International Photography Research Network (IPRN) in the UK, which she will take up later this year.
Nontsikelelo Veleko was born in Bodibe, North West Province in 1977, and grew up in Cape Town. She currently lives and works in Johannesburg. She studied graphic design at the Cape Technikon, and photography at the Market Theatre Photo Workshop. Alongside her personal photographic production, Veleko is also currently a project manager at the Market Photo Workshop where she has been based, since 1999 in various capacities.
Student and Project Manager, Market Photography Workshop, Johannesburg (1999 - 2004) and Cape Technikon, Graphic Design (1995)
Solo and collaborative projects:
July 2003 - present
www. notblackenough.lolo - Project on identity issues facing black people in South Africa and around the world, looking at how fashion constructs identity and how it eventually becomes culture or believed to be culture.
Oct 2001 - present
Project: Graffiti - Project on society's outlet in visual communication. Political and cultural messages defining popular culture in 1994 post-election South Africa.
2000 - 2001
Joubert Park Public Art Project
Assistant to curator and Coordinator Children's Workshops
Living Together Project: An AIDS Project March 2000
Photographer/ Coordinator - Mounting; Installation
2007 'Reality Check', Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, January-March
2007 'Seydou Keita and Lolo Veleko. Fashion.' Danziger Projects, New York, January - February
2006 'Women: Photography and New Media - Imaging Self and Body through Portraiture', Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, November - February
2006 'International contemporary photography: the living is easy', Flowers East Gallery, London, September
2006 'Bieler Fototage: Physiognomie', Museum Schwabe, Biel, Switzerland, September
2006 'Freestyle: Sanlam Fashion Week 2006', Afronova Contemporary Art Gallery, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg, July
2006 'Second to None', Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, June
2006 'Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography', International Centre of Photography, New York, USA, March - May
2006 'Olvida Quien Soy -Erase Me from Who I Am', Centro Atlantico de Arte Mordeno, Las Palmas, Canary Islands, February - April
2006 'Personae & Scenarios - the new African photography', Brancolini Grimaldi Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome, Italy, March
2005 'Next Wave: Commonwealth games New Wave Festival', Melbourne, Australia, April
2005 'Click', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
2004 - 6 'Unsettled - 8 South African Photographers', travelling exhibition, Sweden, Iceland, KwaZulu Natal, Cape Town, including The National Museum of Photography, The Royal Library-Copenhagen, Denmark
2004 - 5 'Negotiated identities - Black Bodies', Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
2004 'Is everybody comfortable', a Market Photography Workshop exhibition, Fortoleza, Maputo, Mozambique, October - November
2004 'Urban Life: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder', a Market Photography Workshop exhibition, Jahnitos, Maputo, Mozambique, October - November
2004 'The ones on top won't make it Stop!', Cine Africa, Maputo, Mozambique, October - November
2004 'Is everybody comfortable', a Market Photography Workshop exhibition, Bensusan Museum of Photography, Johannesburg, South Africa, August
2004 'Min (e) dfields', Kunsthaus Baselland, Muttenz/Basel, Switzerland, August
2004 'Lo-mo-graphy', PhotoZA, Johannesburg, South Africa, August
2004 'Urban life', a Market Photography Workshop exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, August
2004 'Sondela: A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa: Celebrating 10 years of Democracy in South Africa', The Museum of the National Centre of Afro-American Artists in Boston, MA, USA, April
2003 'Fragments of the city - 6 women photographers defining the city and popular culture in SA', Bensusan Museum of Photography, Johannesburg, South Africa, September
2003 'MTN New Contemporaries', Bensusan Museum of Photography, Johannesburg, South Africa, August
2003 'Playtime Festival - The ones on top won't make it Stop!', Bensusan Museum of Photography, Johannesburg, South Africa, May
2002 'Sharp', Market Photography Workshop, Market Theatre, Johannesburg, South Africa, May
2001 'Move', Market Photography Workshop, Market Theatre, Johannesburg, South Africa, October
2000 Joubert Park Public Art Project, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, December
2000 'Seen', Spark! Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, October
International Photography Research Network (IPRN): 2 month residency, England, 2007
MTN New Contemporaries 2003: Nominee, Johannesburg, South Africa
ProHelvetia - IAAB and MPW: 3 month internship, Basel, Switzerland, 2002
Robin Comley, George Hallett and Neo Ntsoma (eds), Woman by Woman: 50 Years of Women's Photography in South Africa. Wits University Press, 2006
Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography. Exhibition catalogue co-published by ICP International Center of Photography, New York, USA
UNSETTLED: 8 South African Photographers. Exhibition catalogue. Curator Mads Damsbo. The National Museum of Photography, The Royal Library, 2004
Is everybody comfortable. Exhibition catalogue. Curator Lori Waselchuk, 2004
Sophie Perryer (ed), 10 Years 100 Artists: Art in a Democratic South Africa, Bell-Roberts Publishing, Cape Town, 2004.
Gary van Wyk (ed), A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa. Exhibition catalogue, 2004
Johannesburg Art Gallery, Brancolini Grimaldi Arte Contemporanea Roma, Italy