Ma Winnie: struggle icon knew the importance of cultivating an image
From 1961 on, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela colluded with photographers to broadcast a narrative affirming the story of resilience through subtle direction of her largely black-and-white portraits, writes Bongani Madondo
While revisiting Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's childhood and biography might be useful in offering us a portrait of the person she later grew into, they barely sketch the persona, the self-scripted character, the spirit mask through which she would rewrite the most important telling of the South African condition.
That mask behind which Winnie the person and persona were indivisible is called "image". Through image she set about retelling her own story, searching for a public self that would substitute for a stolen private self. In that imaging she was never hers alone but her people's. She understood, even in her deepest pain and loss, that her life, for better or worse, morphed into a mirror for her people.
Her genius is reflected in her mastery of the art and technology of photography.
From 1961 on, Winnie the haunted and vulnerable private self, and Winnie the public face of the revolution, colluded to broadcast a narrative affirming the story of resilience through subtle direction of her largely black-and-white portraits as well as newsreel photos that reached the far corners of the world.
Alert to the value of self-archiving, she made herself available to a slew of media photographers but retained her inner magic for Alf Kumalo and Peter Magubane, two dogged lens vets who survived the "golden" Drum era and its fantastical time-warped sepia.
She was never a muse to either, in a classical sense. None could possess her. Neither shot the single, definitive photo of her. Neither tired of capturing her ever-evolving face and fashion aesthetic.
Seeing Winnie looking regal, sexy, combative and playful, while retaining the right to curate her own life story, reanimated black folks with a sense of pride. Here was an activist raising two children virtually as a single mother and still looked classy, eclectic and adventurous.
Winnie helped Kumalo and Magubane move from the realm of photojournalism to documentary art.
STRUGGLE AND STYLE
In 2010, I was involved in a curatorial collaboration with Kumalo. The project had a working title, 50/50: Winnie Mandela Unframed.
Kumalo and I had noted the lack of scholarship on her contribution to a contemporary history of beauty, style and fashion. We were obsessed with the idea of style as a site of individual radical impulse, as personal as everyone's natural smell, and that it should be appreciated as germane to who we are as a country. Who better than Winnie exemplified our cranky theories?
We pored over Kumalo's archives, as well as all the others, in search of style. The mandate was to identify the most startlingly beautiful images and compose some notes about them.
We were in pursuit of beauty, surprise, and, like good old reporters, a darn good story.
It was through that journey - cut short when death snatched Kumalo from us - that I arrived at the piece we shall call the Crying Nun.
The most haunting photograph of Winnie's face I have ever seen is also the most viscerally connective and ultimately poetic report on her. It is Magubane's black-and-white portrait of her. She's draped in a nun-like outfit. Her lips are pursed. She peers deep into the camera. One side of her face is lit up, the other overcast, though hardly gloomy. Her pupils are dark and glistening - with suspended tears, perhaps?
The image is bathed in the pathos of gospel. It is also the one image that, in its photographer's empathy with the subject, pierces the façade to reveal a haunted, resigned and ultimately emotionally shredded spirit.
Although it has never been properly dated in its public use - it has adorned several book jackets as well as the poster for Pascale Lamche's recent documentary Winnie - the photo has a 1940s as well as an early-'60s Diane Arbus realist feel. I have been trying to ascertain the year it was shot for a while now. The emotive symbolism and weariness indicate it might have been shot in the mid- to late-'70s; the time when Winnie and Magubane's covenant mutated into activist-comradeship.
That was a time of unspeakable loneliness in her life. She was banished to Brandfort, a cold, desolate Nowheresville, a place meant to sink her heart deep into her belly.
It is a picture of sunken hearts indeed.
A WOMAN WHO LAUGHED
However, the story of Winnie Mandela in photography is made richer and wider due to the largeness of her heart. The picture that emerges from the wealth of public reportage tells the story of a soul who eschewed tears and gloom. Winnie Mandela lived, worked and laughed.
Especially in Kumalo's work, her multiple personalities, the roles she played, her singular, mediated style, all capture the public imagination. Kumalo frames a smouldering variety of Winnies, from lover to mother of two teenage girls transmogrified into "mother of the nation" as and when the nation wishes.
There she is, hot-mami in black leather jackets, black turtlenecks and knee-length ass-kicking black leather boots. There too is a constructed dramatisation of heritage: an amaMpondo trad-bride, playing coy, head wrapped in an intricately, architecturally presented head-game.
Kumalo in particular loved this concept. And Winnie obliged him.
I have never quite bought into the '60s imagery of Winnie Mandela as a shy village woman. Most of the photos of her in the African-trad are a conceit, a visual fiction within a fiction.
She was a fully fleshed and fully flagged urbanite. She never looked back to Mbizana. She clutched her rural memories close to her bosom but it cannot be said she lived the life of a rural woman in the big-city tableau.
I cannot imagine her walking the streets of her neighbourhood of Orlando, Soweto, in bare feet, wrapped in bygone rural outfits. Nevertheless, there's this one photo that evokes the undulating hills and the chattering of birds in my soul. It doesn't matter that it was shot in Soweto and not in one of the villages at the foot of those rolling hills back home.
BEADS AND BANGLES
It's a staged faux-rural maiden, shot from the waist up, a Kumalo shot. The photograph was art-directed to hit a specific psychic spot in a man, especially a husband incarcerated in jail with no prospect of coming out soon. It is not quite a warm picture. Rather, it is stark, strong, bare, and honest.
Her upper body is all-but-exposed flesh, bar some beads and bangles on each naked arm. On her head, with its short black kinks, is her now trademark Nguni head ring.
Her eyes, diverted from the camera even though she's facing it, are dilated, clear and inquiring. The photographer used a river-weed carpet as a backdrop. The whole effect is shockingly melancholic.
There's nothing clever, philosophical or smarty-pantsy you can say about this photo, other than that it tingles the spine in the weirdest of ways. This beauty and simplicity, as God or any alignment of deities probably intended it to be: her oval yet cherubic face. Round cheeks. Searching eyes.
This is not the face of Gustav Klimt's society ladies in shimmying, floor-length ballgowns. It is not the face of Modigliani's Eastern woman, nor the sculpted face of Brancusi's stern beauty. This is the face of a person with a grace all her own.
To white capitalist patriarchy and its black enablers, Winnie was not supposed to be so beautiful. So complex. So broken. And yet so anchored in who she is on so many levels.
Every time I peer at a photograph of Nomzamo Winifred Mandela, I do so with bitterness as well as a rush of joy. I am as conflicted as I'm inspired.
I realise perhaps that we do not know this woman. That perhaps she never wanted us to know her. Or perhaps when she did we were not ready to listen.
Here is a likeness of a woman from the village, a woman fated to perish on the sidelines of history; a nobody.
I am awestruck at the wondrous beauty of all this. No other country in the world could have birthed a spirit quite like hers.
• Madondo's latest book is 'Sigh, the Beloved Country'.