On posing for Jodi Bieber: Q & A with Sabelo Mnukwa

Fellow Activator, Sabelo Mnukwa, was one of the subjects in photographer Jodi Bieber’s breaking boundaries exhibition, Quiet, at the Goodman Gallery in April 2014. The exhibition examined conventional masculinity by confronting traditional representations of men in which strength and toughness among other masculine attributes are valorized while locking men into gender roles that are complicit with violence.

“Bieber’s portrayal of men in their naked, vulnerable moments rather than the usual portrayal as workers and providers was interesting in that it went against the stereotypical role of men in the media, says Mnuka, “The exposure of unseen moments ironically demonstrate how rarely men are portrayed as ‘imperfect”.

ACTIVATE! Asked him a few questions about the experience:

A! Why did you pose for Jodi Bieber (JB)?

SM: I was curious about being exposed in public, breaking away from an image that I try to project and how others experience me and rather just being the person no one ever really sees. Her idea of portraying men in their quiet moments was also something I realised I don’t see much of in the media.

A! How did you get involved with JB?

SM: I attended a lecture by Jodi at Wits University last year where she mentioned her next project and what she was trying to achieve. The idea of going against the conventional image of what it means to be a man excited me as well as the opportunity to get involved in breaking down gender stereotypes.

A! What drew you to this project?

SM: Before this project I had never questioned why particular images of men are popular in mainstream media. It is rare that men are shown to be less than perfect such as in this photo series where Jodi shows regular men reading books in their underwear or caught in their everyday life away from masculine pressures. This kind of exploration into image made me question how I portray myself and how others perceive me.

A! How did you feel about going against traditional representations of masculinity and opening up, literally and metaphorically, leaving yourself bare?

SM: The experience was awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t tell any of my friends that I had signed up for the project because I felt that they wouldn’t understand. I was hyper-aware that going against traditional representations of masculinity, was going to be difficult to explain, even amongst friends. The reinforcement of notions of heterosexual masculinity as separate from feminine qualities made it hard to express my involvement in the project. I learnt, more than I had ever realised, how little opportunity men have to express their inner feminine qualities to the world because we are supposed to be constantly representing ourselves in a certain “masculine” way.  Having participated in the project I think there is a need to begin breaking barriers around masculine representations as well as the expectations around personal representation.

A! What were you impressions of the project?

SM: This project was an important conversation starter around how men are portrayed in mainstream media and for me personally, how black men are represented. There have been mixed views about the project from critics with many people asking whether the project actually helped change any of the stereotypes. However I think that this was a bold project and that Jodi did well in her portrayal of “behind the scenes” male life. If nothing else, I think that this shed light on an issue that does not get enough recognition, although we still have a long way to go.

A! How did you feel about confronting the viewer the way you did?

SM: I felt strong and balanced in my representation of myself as an African man. African people in the past wore very little clothing and this was not seen as taboo. By posing the way I did I felt like I was reclaiming that indigenous part of me.

A! What have you learnt from the experience?

SM: I’ve learnt that we hold on too tightly to the representations we are taught to follow by society, culture and religion. Even worse is that we don’t question them. If we are moulding ourselves to fit these representations then it should benefit us rather than creating problems in our relationships and more importantly our self-esteem and self-worth. My advice to people is captured in the words of James Baldwin, the African American writer who once wrote that; “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.” 

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