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Cole Ndelu explores the dissonance of masculine femininity in her new photo series

Johannesburg-based photographer Cole Ndelu on Boys will be Boys, her powerful photo series that explores masculinity, femininity and everything in between.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 30 August

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From Boys will be Boys

“I like to challenge the traditional, voyeuristic ways of seeing black bodies by photographing black men and women the way that I want to see them; the way I wish I had seen them growing up,” says Cole Ndelu, an artist and Design Indaba Emerging Creative from the Johannesburg class of 2018.

Ndelu exhibited her photography as part of the Design Indaba’s Simulcast event held at LISOF, Johannesburg in February, 2018. Through her photography, Ndelu explores the theme of black and African identity, drawing inspiration from the people she works with, including models, Nkulsey Masemola, Sandile Mhlongo, Njabulo 'Dirty Native Chief' Hlophe and Kgotlelelo Bradley Sekiti.

In a previous body of work, Cole presented revealing and celebratory portraits of female protesters from the #FeesMustFall student movement. The unique composition of each portrait in the series highlights the individuality of these students. Along with framing the narrative of the protesters in a positive way, Cole wanted to show “women embracing femininity and how femininity is strength.”

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Cole exposes different facets of identity by challenging the norms of masculinity in this compelling photo series

In her new series Boys will be Boys, Cole exposes another facet of identity by challenging the norms of masculinity. “With this series, I'm looking at masculinity, femininity and blackness all in one… because I want my work to facilitate conversation around how we see these things,” she explains. Each male model is decorated with traditionally feminine wigs and makeup, while dressed in gender-neutral streetwear. The intentional repetition of this styling enforces Cole’s underlying message; “I want people to keep seeing it. Seeing masculinity and femininity outside of the norm must become the norm.”

With this body of work, Cole was again inspired by the very people she chose to photograph and the social circles around her. “I'm spending time with men who are open and vulnerable. I say: ‘I'm putting you in a wig and makeup’ and they get excited! I love that,” says Cole.

She explains that she chose to use streetwear in the series because she “wanted to re-contextualise the streetwear genre by styling it in a way that is removed from the masculine ideals of streetwear and the Hypebae look.” The streetwear in the series is by South African designers, The Uniconz and Ohyeslord.

The photo series challenges norms by making people question why masculine femininity makes them uncomfortable, while simultaneously creating a space for people to express gender on its spectrum.

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The photo series challenges norms by making people question why masculine femininity makes them uncomfortable

Speaking about her work and career trajectory to date, Cole says, “It really is about the work that you produce, it’s about creating with intent and awareness. Having the title of Design Indaba Emerging Creative has made me want to work harder. I’m pushing myself a lot more because I can’t be emerging forever.”

The article was first published on Design Indaba. This is part of an exchange programme between Design Indaba and Design Fabric to introduce the rich works coming out of Africa's art and design scene to South Asia, and connect one culture to another.

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