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Ruth’s township images affirm that ‘we are beautiful in our own skin’

Ruth Seopedi Motau captures images of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Picture supplied.

Ruth Seopedi Motau captures images of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Picture supplied.

Published Jun 27, 2022

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Johannesburg - Ruth Seopedi Motau says the reason she took to the camera was because she didn’t like the way the black lived experience was portrayed in the mainstream media.

Born and bred in Meadowlands, Soweto, she had a neighbour who peddled home-brewed beer and children played gaily in the neighbourhood, but such scenes were not the everyday staple of the media, which only focussed the camera lens on the killings and savagery of blacks: “We are not barbaric. We are beautiful in our own skin.”

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Her pictures, she says, are about ordinary people going about their everyday lives.

It is this emphasis on what she frames in her aperture that has won her respect in her field. She recalls that one newspaper executive at the then “Weekly Mail & Guardian”, where she was employed as the first female lensman in the industry, insisted on her doing certain assignments “because she will bring the essence of the subject [to the fore]”.

In these pictures of ordinary people – mostly the downtrodden in society – Motau says she never forgets to treat her subjects with respect.

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Do not get her started talking about her pictures, some of which adorn the walls of her home in Winchester Hills, south of Johannesburg. The devil is in the details for her.

“Look at the hands, the shoes …” she says of this one picture of old women in a queue to a pension payout.

These details then begin to loom large to her interlocutor as she talks about the picture.

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This is clearly the side of the teacher coming through. Somewhere in between holding workshops teaching young wannabe photographers – two of the current cohort have PhDs – she was in Malawi with a class of women eager to eke out a living behind the lens.

She has shaken the tree at many newspapers, where she held the job of pictures editor, traditionally a male preserve.

At the time, in this still male-dominated environment, there was the legendary Kevin Carter among the photographers on staff.

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We are chatting on this midweek afternoon because Motau is part of an unsung heroines exhibition, “When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940 – 2000”, co-curated by Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko Ntombela.

Three iconic photographs from her 1991 “Hostel” series, shot at the Alexander Women’s Hostel in Johannesburg, are exhibited for the first time at this exhibition at the Norval Foundation Art Museum in Cape Town.

The exhibition started in February and will run for a year until February 2023. There are no prizes for guessing whose picture covers the entire mural as the centrepiece of the exhibition!

The “Hostel”series rates highly as one of Motau’s precious “babies”. We are told by the curators that “this series [was kept] hidden from the public until now as she was uncertain about how it would be received”.

Well, the answer is simple – these pictures will be received as warmly as all of her works.

There is not enough space here to cover the list of her awards and published literature in which her pictures are used.

She modestly points out that she has been featured in over 50 exhibitions, locally and internationally, as both an exhibitor and curator.

She laughs off this reporter’s excitement that she’s in this current exhibition, where she was asked to submit 40 pictures, one of which, “The women sitting on the bed”, is a classic Motau.

The exhibition has sculptors, painters and other creatives featured. She is the only photographer. Among those featured in the exhibition is the larger-than-life Esther Mahlangu, who has “two pieces on display”.

Motau’s pictures at the exhibition straddle the spirituality and religion segment through to a section dedicated to the freedom Struggle.

“I have a picture of Winnie Mandela at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” she says. “Then there are pictures from the mines, underground, poor whites at a feeding scheme in Fietas.”

This has been a long journey from her first solo exhibition called “Ordinary People” in London, England in 1994.

“It was mainly about people that I photographed – first time voters, children playing …”

Just before the watershed Beijing Women’s Conference, she had curated an exhibition in the Chinese capital.

It is not surprising. Motau has learnt from and and worked with the best in the field; her late friend, the great Santu Mofokeng, her mentor David Goldblatt, Sam Nhlengethwa, Alf Khumalo and Peter Magubane.

“Most of my work is not commissioned. I’ve always done my own work,” Motau says.

She has another exhibition coming up in Spain later this year. It will be themed on women. It’s not that she is passionate about shooting women, she says: “No. I take pictures of the voiceless.”

And these “voiceless’’ are in books, newspapers, exhibitions and around her house.

“One of my favourite pictures is a self-portrait, shot at home under candlelight,” says this addict of black and white photography.

One has to envy the young ones who learn from her. They are really drinking from a pristine fountain.

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