A man is showing off himself and his clothes off in front of the camera in a small room, his own, the movements and gestures are natural but very exaggerated, the man is a Swenka.
Swenkas is a small group of Zulu workingmen, which was formed in South Africa following the abolishment of Apartheid. On Saturday nights they perform at different venues to impress a judge, the prize for the most stylish suit is cash, but sometimes a goat or a cow. The men follow certain set values such as physical cleanliness, sobriety and above all self-respect. The videos voice over is taken from an interview with photographer and journalist TJ Lemon, famous for photographing Swenkas in Jeppe Hostel and making them known to the public. He speaks about his interest in this cultural phenomenon and why his work is important.
Below is an excerpt from a text written by curator Chen Tamir in relation to the exhibition “Into the Eye of the Storm” Israeli Center for Digital Art, 2011.
How does the act of filming become interwoven with the events unfolding before the camera? How does the camera become a tool, and what permission does it give to or deny its subjects—or its wielder—to perform or do things they would not do otherwise? And can filming someone mean framing and controlling them while giving them a platform and a voice?
These questions and others are asked in the exhibition, Into the Eye of the Storm, which brings together videos that use the camera as a protagonist, or that otherwise call into question the power the camera has over its environment and the subjects it records. The supposedly simple, neutral act of documenting people becomes, in these works, a loaded exercise in power dynamics. The results are complex webs of interactions between subjects, artists, and the viewers who ultimately pass judgment on them. Through these works, we learn that the camera, in essence, does not simply record its subjects, it produces them.
In “Little History of Photography” Walter Benjamin states (harking back to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy) that the illiterates of the future will be those who cannot read photographs. In our age of Photoshop and iPads, YouTube and unmanned war drones, when our personal and collective realities are increasingly mediated by imagery, visual literacy has expanded to encompass many forms: photographs, computer screens, and, most importantly, video in its many manifestations. Much has been written, particularly within the field of visual studies, about the state of reception, the deciphering of visually manipulated images, and the fragmentation of the visual experience. However, in order to truly understand and critique what we see—in photography, in video, on television, and online—we have to analyze not just the effects of post-production and reception on the products we consume, but also the conditions that are created by their very production – that are created simply by turning on the camera…”
…”A similar voyeurism sustains our attention in Tova Mozard’s Poverty and Hardship, where a man plays himself up for the camera in what Gilles Delueze might call a “becoming-image” of his own. In this video, a well-dressed man traipses around and shows off his finely tailored suit within the confines of a modest and unfashionable bedroom. He is a Swenka, one of a small group of South African working-class men who compete weekly to be judged “most stylish”. The men follow certain set values such as cleanliness, sobriety, and, above all, self-respect. In this video, he performs to us, the imagined viewer, and by extension to the camera, rather than to the normal panel of judges who would award the winner with prizes such as goats, cows, and money. The video begins with the man poised unmoving, frozen in anticipation of his cue. When he realizes the camera is on, he begins his peculiar self-display. In the background runs an audio interview with a journalist who explains how he got to know the Swenkas and why he wanted to make them known to the world. The voiceover mediates what would otherwise seem to be odd behavior, but behavior not unlike that seen in the millions of personal home videos popular on YouTube, the largest website for video content in the world. The journalist describes his experience and the process of documentation, and thus brings to the fore the act of documentation. His voiceover demarcates a cleft between the subject and the recorder; making this piece as much about seeing and documenting as it is about being seen and being documented…”