Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu observing a moment of reflection inside his family's private chapel in Orlando West, Soweto. Pictures: Jacob Mawela
Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu observing a moment of reflection inside his family's private chapel in Orlando West, Soweto. Pictures: Jacob Mawela

Legendary lensman shares snippets of history captured on his long journey

By Don Makatile Time of article published Sep 14, 2021

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(NB: Please use all the attached pictures)

That the camera never lies is perhaps best captured in the works of a Soweto maverick who has captured anyone and everything newsworthy.

Veteran photojournalist Jacob Mawela speaks with the same passion about pictures as a poet dedicated to prose and love.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu observing a moment of reflection inside his family's private chapel in Orlando West, Soweto. Pictures: Jacob Mawela

A Bohemian of some sort and a nonconformist free thinker, Mawela once described his art as a lifestyle, not a job. He is also scholarly and a raconteur.

Jacob Mawela shaking on it after concluding a photo session with erstwhile South African president, F.W. de Klerk in Plattekloof, Cape Town.

Now working freelance, the Pimville, Soweto, lensman will host a solo photographic exhibition at the City of Ekurhuleni’s Benoni Museum, from Heritage Day - September 24, running until early next year. Thereafter, it will move on to the City of Johannesburg’s Workers Museum for a March 27, 2022 opening, and then onto the City of Tshwane’s Pretoria Art Museum for a May 7, 2022 opening.

The exhibition, titled, Names in Uphill Letters, features a total of 108 of Mawela’s care

Artist William Kentridge snapped during a rehearsal for the piece, Dancing with Dada, with dancer Dada Masilo at the Market Theatre.

er-long photographs of newsmakers.

His keen news sense pulsates through his work and through the privilege of personal access to his subjects, he delved into the personae behind individuals who hogged – and continue hogging – news media headlines.

Kammersangerin Mimi Coertse singing to her pet dog, which cooed back to her, at her Waterkloof home.

These are visuals of such a myriad characters and personalities as Mr Ples, the Hominid fossil to pugilists Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran, Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates; media personalities, Oprah Winfrey and Christine Amanpour; Hollywood actors, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Will Smith and James Earl Jones; tennis royalty, namely, the Williams’ sisters, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg; basketballers, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Harlem Globetrotters; footballers, Eusebio, Ruud Gullit, Kevin Keegan and FC Barcelona and O Selecao (Brazil’s National football team), etc.; golfers, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia; musicians, The Spice Girls, Tina Turner, Randy Crawford, Harry Belafonte, Peter Gabriel, Wynton and Branford Marsalis … the list is endless.

Oh, let us add to the unending list just two more names, novelists Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o!

Exhibitions are becoming an outlet for photojournalists who are now working away from the formal employment arena, including the likes of Sphiwe Mhlambi, Ruth Seopedi Motau, Neo Ntsoma, Tladi Khuele, to name but a few.

Mawela is in fine company here - and deservedly so.

Mawela makes the point that he “didn’t embark on this project as a judge of man, but rather as a roving eye merely fascinated by human nature”.

Names in Uphill Letters is a never-seen-before visual presentation which has been made possible by funding from the National Arts Council (NAC).

Mawela's career in photojournalism reads like a Who’s Who of aperture and shutter speed. His tutor was none other than the world-renowned George Hallett. As part of his assessment, Mawela presented a photo documentary on the Malay community of the Bo-Kaap, in Cape Town – which formed part of a group exhibition among students he was on the programme with in 1993.

He made his debut at our sister newspaper The Star a month before the watershed 1994 elections under the tutelage of the late Ken Oosterbroek, he of the Bang-Bang Club-fame.

He made his name at DRUM magazine.

He is a lover of vintage cars, jazz and literature - all of which show in his work.

In 2017 book publishers, Pan Macmillan, used his image of fellow photographer, Jurgen Schadeberg on the latter’s memoir, The Way I See It, on the book’s jacket back-flap.

In a news media career spanning two decades, Mawela has photographed global luminaries ranging from Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II and The Dalai Lama; American presidents, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter; British Premiers, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; political figures, Fidel Castro, Yassir Arafat, Stokely Carmichael, the IRA’s Gerry Adams and onetime Dawson’s Field Hijackings poster girl, Leila Khaled; artists, William Kentridge and George Pemba, et cetera.

The exhibition is long overdue.

The Benoni Museum is located on 60 Elston Avenue, 1500. Open Monday to Friday: 9am – 4pm. Tel: 011 999 6835.

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