Hip Shooterby Sean O'Toole / 08.05.2009
Nontsikelelo Veleko, Trio, archival pigment print on cotton rag paper, 42 x 28cm
Courtesy Goodman Gallery Cape
The last time I bumped into Lolo Veleko – her first name is a contraction of Nontsikelelo – the photographer was sporting an outrageous afro. It made Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini’s explosion of hair look positively sedate. Veleko’s afro bobbed and flopped and swayed as she weaved her way through the traffic at the Joburg Art Fair in early April.
Cool doesn’t quite describe Khayelitsha’s most famous photographer.
Born in 1977 in Bodibe, in the North West Province, Veleko grew up in Cape Town, briefly studying graphic design before finally heading north for Johannesburg. At first she worked as a makeup sales lady, “which I really enjoyed,” she told me when I first interviewed her in 2004. “I am not ashamed of it.”
In 1999 she enrolled in a photographic course at Newtown’s Market Theatre Workshop. A decade later she is the toast of the town, her Standard Bank Young Artist Award travelling exhibition, Wonderland, touring the country. Capetonians have until May 10 to catch the show, which includes this series of portraits, before it moves to Joburg for its final showing.
In recent years Veleko has taken a lot of flak for her work, much of this criticism voiced in private.
“Too easy.” “It’s just fashion photography.” “She’s simply a politically correct artist.” “This stuff lacks craft.” “Her installations are pretentious nonsense.”
While each criticism contains a kernel of truth, or at least the possibility of some shade of truth, I think Veleko’s photos deserve a second, possibly even a third and fourth look. Here’s why.
One: she is consistent in what she does. Long before the glare of fame, when she was still a black and white trainee photographer, Veleko made beautiful portraits of young hipsters. One in particular still sings for me, an outdoor portrait of young Aids activist in pencil tie and keppie, shyly laughing. (Why does showing Aids always have to depress the viewer?)
Two: audiences respond to her work. Two years ago Veleko displayed some of her portraits of Joburg cool cats in an outdoor setting in Bamako, the capital of Mali. It was magical seeing local hipsters responding by posing and photographing one another in front of Veleko’s vinyl-printed photographs.
Three: her work has captured the afterglow of the post-1994 flash. Sure, that moment is rapidly receding as the power struggle refines itself and becomes a bun fight for the right to power steering. Here’s another way of phrasing this last point.
A few years ago Strut Records brought out Nigeria 70, a compilation of Afro-beat and funk. (Check out Orlando Julius and the Afro Sounders’ contribution.) For the cover artwork, Strut managed to find vintage 70s photos of young Lagos hipsters, cats who look like long lost members of George Clinton’s Funkadelic.
Lagos doesn’t look like this anymore – and in a few decades time South Africa will be different too. Yes this is an obvious insight, and one that pithily explains why Veleko’s freeze-frames of the life and times of now are so poignant.