Thandiwe Msebenzi is one of the three artists who have been awarded a coveted 2014/2015 Tierney Fellowship. Msebenzi, who obtained her Bachelors Degree in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town in 2014, is currently pursuing a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching (Visual Arts), at the UCT School of Education.
Established in 2003 by the Tierney Family Foundation, the international Tierney Fellowship aims to discover and support the best, young emerging artists in the field of photography. Tierney Fellows receive a cash grant as well as ongoing guidance from a mentor so that they can develop a complete body of work towards a professional exhibition. The term of the Fellowship is one year. Msebenzi is mentored by UCT senior lecturers, Jean Brundrit and Svea Josephy. Humanities News asked this high-achiever and Dean’s Merit List recipient to share her story as well as her thoughts on the significance of the award.
HN: You are the 6th UCT-trained artist to receive The Tierney Fellowship, following in the footsteps of Robert Watermeyer (2008); Vincent Bezuidenhout (2010); Aubrey Tseleng (2011); Nobukho Nqaba (2012) and Ashley Walters (2013). What does this international accolade mean to you and for your work? TM: The Tierney fellowship means a lot to me and to my work. Being part of the fellowship is like being part of a big family that does not just end locally but extends internationally to all the other fellows. As a young artist, it’s great because it means I am part of a network of photographers. Through the Fellowship I have gotten to meet and work with amazing people, and some of South Africa’s finest young artists. Due to their influence and their critique I feel they have paved a very important foundation for me, as a young artist who has just finished studying.
HN: What drew you to photography in the first place? TM: I always thought that my enjoyment of photography started in varsity, but looking through my earliest pictures, taken in high school with my automatic digital camera, I realize that I have always enjoyed taking images. But first year photography officially stole my heart. Working in pinhole photography, and having to really look and think about what I was shooting because it was only one shot and the magic that happened in the dark room when the picture got developed - all drew me close to photography.
Pictured above: some of the images featured in Thandiwe's 'Oobhuti abatsha' collection. The collection formed part of her final year project and helped secure the Tierney Fellowship award.
HN: What informed the decision to study at Michealis? TM: Growing up I was also surrounded by paintings my mother had made and stuck on the walls. By the time I was in grade three I already knew I wanted to be an artist. Back then the only idea of an artist (in my mind) was that of a man in a beret sitting in a chair, in front of a canvas carrying a painting pallet. I attended Waldorf School where creativity was nurtured and I took art classes. It’s here where my passion for art was fostered. Living on the Cape Flats and having to travel to Constantia every day, and as a young child living and experiencing two completely different worlds every day (from primary right up to matric), art become a platform of expressing and fixing the broken. With art I could also challenge and engage in things that I could not express verbally, but felt. By the time I finished matric I just knew that art had a purpose in my life and that I just had to study it.
HN: Do you think that the art world is taking more notice of South African artists? TM: I think the world has always taken note of South African artists since the time of Dumile Feni, just not to the level of your Picasso’s. However the are few South African artists who have made their mark and continue to do so. I also do believe though there is a big pot brewing full of young South African artists who are ready to make their mark in the world. I think the momentum is much bigger than in the past.
HN: Which artist do you most admire and why? TM: One artist I admire, who no longer lives but her spirit lives on and continues to inspire me is Frida Kahlo. She was a painter, a fighter and a visionary.
HN: Tell us about your favourite body of work and why it holds particular significance to you? TM: My favourite body of work was the work I did in 2014 for my fourth and final year. The series of photographs was called oobhuti abatsha: the old and the new. Oobhuti abatsha or amakrwala refers to men who are recent initiates, having come back from the mountain or initiation school. This series of photographs documents the specific attire worn by Xhosa new men, as a symbol of their recently achieved manhood. The new men in the exhibition are students at the University of Cape Town many of them first-years, coming to a foreign impermanent space of learning which constitutes another form of initiation and passage to manhood.
It’s my favourite body of work because it challenged me from the day I starting thinking about it. There were many times at the very beginning that I thought I would never get through it. The work dealt with very sensitive issues - especially considering that I am a woman talking about a domain strictly for and about men.
Selection of the Fellows:
The Tierney Fellows presented their work at a Tierney Fellowship workshop in February this year, to a panel of established artists and academics who included: David Goldblatt, Jo Ractliffe, John Fleetwood, Nomusa Makhubu, Chad Rossouw, Ernestine White, Vulindela Nyoni, Marilyn Martin and Maurice Mbikayi. Past Tierney fellows from Michaelis include Ashley Walters and Nobukho Nqaba who has been selected to take part in the prestigious Regeneration 3 in Switzerland which aims to identify the next generation of image-makers and photography’s potential stars. South African institutions in partnership with The Tierney Fellowship include: Market Photo Workshops (MPW), the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and the Michaelis School of Fine Art (UCT).