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Justice Mukheli's Vulnerable and Powerful Portraiture Captured "Through their Eyes"

Justice Mukheli is a Film Director and co-founder of I See A Different You, a photographic and creative collective from Soweto which he formed with his brother Fhatuwani Mukheli, Vuyo Mpantsha and Neo Mashigo. Recently Justice has started producing photographic work independently and has his first solo exhibition titled "Through their Eyes" coming up at Daville Baillie Gallery in Lorentzville from the 3rd of March to the 29th.

Your exhibition "Through their Eyes" is a body of work including portraits of children that you have captured in South Africa, and Nigeria. And the body of work "stands as a suggestion that we can seek out a new reality through the inherent knowledge that children possess, of how to live in Africa and further afield." What is this inherent knowledge that children possess and how will looking at the world from their perspective create a better world?

Children have an innocence in them we all once had, they carry it with them effortlessly, and it never seems to leave them, regardless of what this world throws at them. So, if we find a way, to see this world as adults we’ve become, to experience it and navigate our challenges and all the hardships we come across. And if see it all “Through their eyes” our approach to it and how it affects us would never have the impact it has on us now that we are adults.

For example, my father left my family when I was very young, it was traumatic that he left us with our unemployed mother and didn’t care how we would face another day. But because I was young, and because my I still carried the innocence in me, dealing with that trauma was a lot easier then, the pain of my father leaving us hit me a lot harder the older I became.

The idea of Afrotopia (an imagined place of of ideal perfection that is distinctly African) is embedded in each image from this body of work, in your opinion how can Africans young and old start to take a step towards this idea of Afrotopia, what do you think needs to happen for the idea of Africa and the reality of Africans to start to change for the better?

We need to start from a place of self-acceptance, we need to accept that our world was not in our favour for thousands of years. And now that we see all the wrong we’ve been done, we see all that has been taken from us and how we’ve been brutalized, christianized, colonized and bastardized our culture and heritage. Acceptance is probably the first and most important part of healing, if we work from this place, and see our world with these eyes. Our healing will be faster and our own experience of Africa and Us will be a beautiful experience because we are powerful; anger

suppressed our power.

You have recently been releasing quite a few projects or work on your own, separate from the work you do as part of I See A Different You, what has inspired taking that direction?

I See A Different You was born in 2011, we had an amazing time building the brand and growing with it. Nothing is better than seeing an idea that started as small as a dust particle grow to be as big as a mountain. The brand grew beautifully with time and continues to grow. However, I had this deep yearning for exploring a very personal artistic expression. An expression that sees me dive deeper into uncovering the human and spirit and healing myself through that. This led to me to start a new journey on my own.

Your work focuses on diverse faces, from kids, young adults to elderly people, what has drawn you to photograph faces?

A person's face is so powerful. You can read someone's life through their eyes. I've always had an interest in what feel and think about in their daily lives. What do they like? What are their struggles? What is it that makes them who they are. So all these questions made me want to see the world through the eyes of another and grasp their experience of life. I obviously could never actually see the world through another's eyes and so I decided to capture a portrait in such a way that that person’s journey speaks beyond their portrait. If I manage to get that right, a portrait of a person becomes a reflection of their world.

Is there a specific narrative, theme or idea that you look out for when creating a photograph or is it all spontaneous and in the moment?

Interesting question, I haven’t even asked myself this. So thank you for helping me engage something different about me and my work. So, I find myself drawn to seeking that soulfulness in a person and their portrait. I love to create portraits that gives the viewer an experience of another person’s reality. I love for my photography to have a nostalgic feeling, a feeling of relatablity and for the image to take you to a moment you haven’t never even experienced.

Your work has a raw honesty to it, how do you inspire vulnerability in the subjects you photograph?

I take this as a compliment, because my work is mainly influenced by how I feel and all the emotions inside of me. I connect with subjects that are feeling how I feel. I can see it in their eyes even before I ask them to create a photograph. I know that everyone feels and experiences things differently and that our challenges and victories evoke emotions. That feeling you get from any expirience you have, good or bad, those emotions are universal. Because of that, and because I am also vulnerable and honest, I try to bring all of who I am to people. I share all of me with my subjects, before we have even created a photograph. So this unspoken emotional exchange is what I think translates through the. images.

Creatively you wear different hats such as Film Director and Photographer, do the two mediums play a complementary role or do you choose to keep them separate?

The two compliment each other. The mediums are strongly related so it makes sense to let them feed each other for my benefit.

What role does your upbringing play in the kind of work that you produce?

My childhood and upbringing have a huge influence on my work. On the one hand, growing up in Soweto was magical and gave me a sense of the richness and beauty of the small daily victories and challenges that made my community. Yet, I also have a number childhood traumas and daddy issues. Yes, black men have daddy issues too!

So this understanding that every person has a story and that story is worth capturing has shaped my work. While interacting with people through my lens has helped me heal from the hurts in my life. It gives me a new language through which to express my emotions - pain, joy, sadness, forgiveness - without having to necessarily articulate those emotions. Because words don’t come easy me!

What has been the most defining moment of your creative career so far and what are the lessons that came with it?

Right in this moment, the defining moment in my creative career has been the pursuit of my personal artistic expression. It took a lot to get to that decision. And it also took a lot for me to realise that I am enough.

The lesson that came with this decision was that the thing you really, really desire lies on the other side of fear. And that “Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.”


Photography: Justice Mukheli

Interview: Phendu Kuta

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