Bonani Africa 2010 Festival of Photography

Bonani Africa Online Exhibition 2010

Araminta de Clermont

A new beginning

This series document South Africa's Ikrwala, (recently initiated young men), in the outfits which they wear to denote their new manhood. For the boys turned men, the initiation process is an absolute watershed, an apparent opportunity to start a whole fresh new life.

The wearing of a specified outfit for up to a year after the new man's time in the bush is a hugely significant part of the process: it is a great source of pride, showing that the man has left childhood behind, has gone through the circumcision process (with all the attendant hardship) and has entered a new phase of life. The particular outfit varies for different "tribes": for Xhosa men it is prescribed to include a hat, a jacket, a shirt buttoned up to the throat, smart trousers, and polished shoes with a folded kerchief and a box of matches in the pocket. For Sotho men, it is a blanket, a hat, a stick they have made themselves while in the bush. The individual style is left to the man himself. Such attire is instantly recognizable to others from the same culture. Older men particularly will see the new initiate wearing these clothes and will often stop them in the street to congratulate them on their new status. Unknown people will engage with the new man on a completely different level than if he were dressed in his noinial clothes. These suits almost demand immediate respect. And often, so do the men wearing them.

Tellingly, allowances are made by many schools in townships for the ikrwala to forgo their usual school uniform, though they do not actively encourage such a practice. I was interested in documenting these men on so many different levels. Primarily perhaps as an exploration into the levels of self-composure, pride, or hope, on the faces and in the bearings of those who have a belief in a fresh new start. But also as an exploration into the power of public demonstrations of group identity, and how they affect the individual. And then I was fascinated by the particular style of clothing chosen, looking at which influences can be seen to inform the new generation of century 21st South Africa. And finally, on another level, this work aims to raise questions as to the validity of a new start, (which is so much believed in, and hoped for), when seen in the context of the environments in which most youngsters are raised. For what happens when the surroundings have not changed as the person has?

The "New Men" pictured here are all shot in their school's classrooms, or in their immediate environment. The squatting stance of the Xhosa men is cultural, how they present themselves.

Life after

“Life After” is a series on South Africa’s highly tattooed, ex-number gangsters who having been released after completing their sentences, struggle to find a place in society, being “branded” with prison-made tattoos (as they are in effect) These tattoos are an absolute document of the men’s life stories, laden with meaning. In fact it could be said that the tattooing is a documentary itself. But this work is predominantly about the human being behind the marks; and how their imprisoned existence may have affected them, It is also about what sort of life these men live, after prison.

This body of work, undertaken by British born and trained photographer, Araminta de Clermont, (from April 2007 to the present day) is the documentation of a cultural phenomenon: the tattooed gangsters of the South African "Number" Gangs. These home-made prison tattoos (also known as "chappies"), whose use is widespread throughout the South African prison system, are hugely historically significant in their own right. They are also a form of body-art: where the prisoners’ skin is perhaps their only remaining possession and form of self-expression.

Many prisoners have gone as far as covering their whole bodies, even their faces. The motives behind such a drastic action are diverse and fascinating in themselves, while what the tattoos represent is incredibly rich and telling. But what this project is perhaps most concerned with is recording the humanity behind the "masks", and looking at what happens to the prisoners once they leave prison. At the same time, questions are raised about the choices we make in life, and the price we pay for these decisions. In prison, the subjects of these photographs are Kings. Once out in the world, their appearance serves to class them as dangerous criminals, provoking fear and often distaste in the general public. Many are now homeless or 'strollers', unable to get jobs and suffering high levels of alcohol/drug abuse. They become "branded", as it were, by their tattoos.

The subjects of these portraits (always photographed in their own environments) were found in "hidden places": homeless shelters, broken down tenement blocks, under bridges, in back alleys, townships, soup kitchens and bus stations. In keeping with their personal, and often violent histories, in and then out of prison, many of these gangsters possess scars and even amputated limbs; thus the work also became an exploration of the extent to which the human body can tell the story of its inhabitant's passage through life.

About Araminta de Clermont

Born: Isle Of Man, United Kingdom, 1971.

Lives and works in Cape Town. Studied at University College London (Architecture), Central St Martin?s School Of Art, London (Photography) and Ruth Prowse School of Art, Cape Town.

Collections: South African National Gallery; UNISA; Simmons College, USA.