An exploration of visual artist and photographer Ranji Mangcu, a Black Xhosa woman, and her black iconography that tears down the walls of the spaces it was historically prohibited from occupying.
For a second, let us remove racism and its legacies from the interruption of the history of African people and place Ranji Mangcu in Europe in the 18th century. This was a season of breakthrough. It is the right time when Mangcu’s black iconography would have intruded history and its erasure of Black women. Her hands would have created a barrier against the representational violence towards Black women within Western art history. Mangcu’s hands hold a lens that is focused on the Black woman’s history and the arrangement of her facial features in stills. Her Nikon FG-20 35mm film single-lens camera that captured her baby sister, with her hair being combed out by her mother, is a photograph that should have been an oil on canvas by Mangcu hung alongside Francis Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour.
However, history would never have handed Mangcu a canvas to portray the portraits of women whose skin is the colour of our soil or the liberty to create an ode to her family.
And that is why it so important to her to leave behind an array of work that will be studied as a history that honoured Black women in the spaces our foremothers were erased. These spaces are significant for who she creates for because they are of a time that gave the world portraiture that Mangcu loves yet wishes celebrated Black womanhood and documented it in the way it did and continues to for Western womanhood. She walks alongside The Carters and Solange Knowles in the journey of instilling a permanent documentation of our presence in spaces our hands built. Her walk in her creative process with Solange Knowles is one where they assemble the voices and stories of the Black women that they meet on their way. When Mangcu and Knowles arrive at their destinations, they place odes praising Black womanhood into their laps. An Ode To by Knowles and Nomdakazana by Mangcu pay homage to those who accompany them. Nomdakazana is an ode to our dark skin; the outcome of viewing dark skin through a lens that commends it.
In her exhibition of Nomdakazana, there’s a photograph of Mangcu posed as the sitter in Girl with a Pearl Earring. It is a side profile of a Black Xhosa woman with dark skin gazing at her audience. It is Ranji with a Pearl Earring that would leave Vermeer crying in a ditch. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a 1665 oil on canvas by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is a portrait of a young Western woman who possesses timeless beauty. She stunningly gazes at the audience. She sits in her stillness with a blue and pale yellow headwrap covering more than three quarters of her hair and an illuminating pearl earring hanging from her earlobe. If Vermeer stood in the space where Nomdakazana was exhibited and saw Mangcu posing as his sitter, with a white headwrap covering more than three quarters of her hair, he would run to cry in a ditch because he would fail to encompass into his painting Mangcu’s Black womanhood. Mangcu in her rendition of Vermeer’s painting did for herself, and the Black beauty we were denied access to, what Vermeer with his technical skills could never do. By placing a captured moment of a Black woman with dark skin in a space where white men, in all their subjectivity, prohibited Blackness from entering, she explores the significance of representation.
Self-portraiture is a reflection of how you exude the beauty you are surrounded by. Mangcu is surrounded by a beauty that adorns its Black skin and commands respect. It is deeper than just her gazing into a camera; it is her gaze into the horizon of the Black womanhood she aspires to document for us. There are Black women in the future and Mangcu is leaving for them her gift, the gift she accepted when she constructed a studio out of her friend’s study lamps and tissue paper in her living room. From this acceptance, a portrait series of the celebration of Black womanhood and beauty in comfort space was born.
Mangcu is doing for Africa what Vermeer did for the West with a painting that looked a group of women in the eyes and affirmed their presence in the corner of every space of this world. Her work is An Ode to Black Womanhood.