Beauty is always needed in the world: Trevor Stuurman’s new African archive

His body of work is a love letter to the continent, its culture, song and style

31 May 2024 - 10:12 By Khensani Mohlatlole
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Trevor Stuurman.
Trevor Stuurman.
Image: Supplied / instagram

People do not live in the present. Perhaps that’s why we must constantly remind ourselves to live in the moment and to YOLO (you only live once). In actuality, we’re consumed with the past and the future. We hope to learn from our history to make better plans moving forward. This is why documentation is such a defining characteristic of our species. When we document things, we can transcend the limits of time and space to communicate, transferring knowledge from one generation to another.

Most often, history is written by the victors which skews the archives kept and who gets to make and keep them. In the 20th century, after the wave of liberation movements across Africa and the diaspora, photographers such as Malick Sidibé, JD ’Okhai Ojeikere, Kwame Brathwaite and Santu Mofokeng pioneered a turn in the tide of how Africans saw themselves.

Through their unique styles, they captured joy, beauty and dignity in ways long denied in prevailing images and narratives. But their work wasn’t only documenting culture, its mere existence began to shape it. In giving a visual reference to pro-black, Pan-African and freedom-era philosophies and schools of thoughts, the photographers helped others imagine what this could look like and what they could be.

In the 21st century, South African photographer and creative director Trevor Stuurman continues the tradition. 

Thandisa Mazwai for The Manor.
Thandisa Mazwai for The Manor.
Image: Trevor Stuurman, 2024

“I think documentation is important because we are able to cite where we come from, to be our own references, we are able to track and to have taken account for our time on earth,” said Stuurman, fresh from a trip to Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Born in Kimberley, Stuurman’s big break began as the winner of now defunct Elle Magazine’s style reporter search in 2012 at 19 years old. As style reporter, Stuurman would report on trends and events, travel aboard and learn from the editorial team.

“That moment felt like getting almost off an off-road and onto the highway in terms of my career.”

Before this, he’d been running the street style blog, Stuurman Style Diary, where he captured the eclectic fashions of Cape Town’s residents, and attended film school at the University of Cape Town. 

Twelve years later, Stuurman has shot for several publications, from Glamour South Africa to British Vogue, worked on campaigns for Gucci, Montblanc, and Mini, contributed to Black Is King and Coming 2 America, and collaborated with talents in fashion and entertainment such as Lukhanyo Mdingi, Thebe Magugu, David Tlale, Zoe Modiga, Manthe Ribane and more. 

Stuurman’s body of work is a love letter to the continent: its culture, its song and, most importantly, its style. Cloth has long been a medium through which Africans have told their stories, and while many often denigrate fashion as vapid, materialistic and, yes, sometimes toxic, through Stuurman’s work we can also see the transformative power of clothing. It is a language without words.

“We have the ability to play characters through fashion, and I really enjoy that,” Stuurman explained, “and the escape of it as well as the realism. Because even in the escape, there’s a reality you are escaping from, and there’s a reality you’re also creating. But also it’s beautiful, and I think beauty is always needed in the world.”

Fantasy and reality were central components in the work of Malian photographer Malick Sidibe.

“It was quite different at my studio,” Sidibe revealed in a 2008 interview with Jerome Sother.

“It was like a place of make-believe. People would pretend to be riding motorbikes, racing against each other.” 

Working in the 1960s, the photographer composed images of a newly liberated country:  young people elegantly clothed in a mix of local fabrics and international trends, emboldened by the spirit of rock ’n roll, and dancing to the beat of their own drums. Often creating his own backdrops and carefully positioning his subjects, his images relayed both control and freedom.

“As a rule, when I was working in the studio I did a lot of the positioning. As I have a background in drawing, I was able to set up certain positions in my portraits. I didn’t want my subjects to look like mummies. I would give them positions that brought something alive in them. People who have life need to be positioned that way.”

Wamukelekile ekhaya Gucci campaign, 2022.
Wamukelekile ekhaya Gucci campaign, 2022.
Image: Trevor Stuurman

Along with Sidibe, Stuurman also counts American artist Kwame Brathwaite as a source of inspiration.

Brathwaite, often seen as the father of the Black Is Beautiful movement, pioneered a darkroom technique for a deepened look of black skin sans the aid of flash photography. He is credited for some of the most iconic images of iconic figures of his time such as Nina Simone, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Working worlds apart, both photographers managed to create a similarly distinct take on blackness which wasn’t mired in poverty, trauma or oppression.

“They were instrumental in developing a visual language when it comes to photography, African vernacular photography. Everything was stylised, particular, and so aspirational and iconic for themselves,” said Stuurman.

One of Stuurman’s projects, Hair Majesty, is reminiscent of the work of Ojeikere, the Nigerian documentarian who created a series of more than 1,000 images documenting the hairstyles of Nigerian women in the latter half of the 20th century. Braided, wrapped, twisted and sculptural, the hairstyles mirrored the transient society at the time, often replicating and reimaging architecture, food and the changing natural world. While Hair Majesty follows the same visual markers of sculpted hairstyles and back profiles, Stuurman’s series is updated for the 21st century with the addition of ostentatious pearl and gold jewellery and designer monogrammed pins — reminding us of the role black people play in driving culture for European luxury giants such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci. 

Hair Majesty, 2022.
Hair Majesty, 2022.
Image: Trevor Stuurman

Back in Johannesburg, Stuurman spearheads The Manor, a multimedia collective. “I’d say it’s a mansion with many rooms and everyone is invited. They find a place of belonging and express themselves and have fun. The mission is to basically take up space, but also to create space for other like-minded storytellers.” 

The Manor spans several disciplines, working on collaborations with Kasi Culture and Wanda Lephoto as well as publishing Stuurman’s latest book, Reflecting B(l)ack, a curated photographic journal featuring visual artists from East, West, North and Southern Africa 

“It came from wanting to champion African photography, specifically as a fine art discipline, but also creating almost a manual for our collective black experiences because they’re not always documented. And if they are, they’re documented from a specific lens, and it’s never within a very editorial or art focus. It was important that we celebrate and create a time capsule of how we’d live, and what we find beautiful and having different experiences from different parts of the African continent as well as the diaspora and having that as a solid piece of work that future generations can reflect back on and see where they come from.”


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