Power to the Peopleby Samora Chapman / Images by Sheldon Wins / 05.03.2014
It’s New Year’s at Smoking Dragon in the KZN midlands and all the cool kids are out to play. It’s been a long year toiling in the harsh economic sunshine and the youth are more than ready to shed 365 shackles, indulge the senses and metamorph into new beings as the clock strikes midnight.
Deep in the mix is one Sheldon Wins, gung-ho photographer and artist, who remembers (in the midst of the madness) that he’s s’posed to be producing some content for a Jozi website, but that’s tomorrow’s concern.
The next day Sheldon ropes in some fellow Durbanites for an impromptu photo shoot. Musos, activists, arteests, academics and some who just look good on camera are dragged into the dream scene. A psychedelic T-shirt bearing the peaceful, smiling face of a Hindu deity is thrown in as a prop and the shoot begins.
Snap, snap, the camera flashes and everyone’s sucked down a creative rabbit hole for an hour or two, lost in the bliss of make-believe, for just a moment, playing dress up.
And when the shutter click-clacks on the last frame, the collective disperse, they’re all smiling ‘cos they’ve contributed to something they feel is pure, beautiful.
Or at least, so they thought.
A few days later Sheldon Wins sits editing the images from the shoot. He’s got butterflies ‘cos the pics are so dope. The colours pop. The spontaneity and the energy are tangible. The moments are there.
He uploads, he shares, he tags, he sets the pics free on the spiderweb, where his artworks can be seen. They rack up a storm of Likes, they go viral. And then something goes wrong…
Sheldon awakes the next day to find the images, his images, splashed across the front page of The Post newspaper; ‘‘Is this offensive… or is it art?” demands the headline. It’s like being hit by a wall of cold water. The phone rings. His inbox starts to sing, he begins to sweat.
The newspaper article declares to the world (or Durban at least) that The Hindu community is outraged. Sacrilege! Racism! Drug-induced Pornography! Like bolts of angry lightning sent by the gods, the insults rain down.
Perhaps it was ignorant to mix nudity with religion, but the artists involved all claim that the intention behind the work was not to mock or to trivialise the oldest religion in the world. Sheldon’s intent was to document a moment in time – a group of people celebrating life and working together in a productive way. That energy is inherent in every image.
Does that justify the work or address the hurt caused? I guess not. At the end of the day, the “message” – what the artwork communicates – is, in my opinion, equally as important as the aesthetic.
Foresight is a fickle bastard that eludes the best of us at times.
Sheldon Wins, the models and artists involved were not afforded the opportunity in the mainstream media to respond in full to the outcry over the photos. So they have created a BLOG to respond to the issues raised, provide an artists’ statement and motivation behind the collection. The blog is about creating a sincere space for engagement and dialogue, where the artists strive to understand, address and work towards resolving issues surrounding the images.
The advent of social media means that just about everyone is now a publisher. Everything tossed into the public domain will be consumed, judged, scrutinised and appropriated – and this is often forgotten with the modern avalanche of information and messages that come to us from cyber space.
Art has always been responsible for pushing boundaries, reflecting and reacting to social, political, and economic realities, and being a bastion of free, unadulterated expression. But artists and content creators still need to own what they create, and take responsibility for it. And that’s what these artists have done with their blog… even if it is in retrospect of the work being published.
Ultimately, you, the people decide. You keep the artists, politicians, publishers, commentators and fat cats in check. You decide what is wrong and what is right. You have a voice in mahala (on our comments board), and on the artists’ blog itself. You give the work meaning. Onward!
All images © Sheldon Wins
*Images first published on JHB Live