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NONTSIKELELO VELEKO (article first published : 2007-10-25)

The Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art has been awarded to Nontsikelelo Veleko (30), known as ‘Lolo’ to everyone.

Visual art nowadays is a discipline that knows no boundaries with dance and photography forming integral parts of this diverse medium. Lolo is only the second photographer to win this award but her ‘art through the lens’ has achieved world recognition with her early project entitled www.notblackenough.lolo which explored perceptions in South Africa of mixed heritage, using clothes as critical props to deliberately challenge assumptions of identity based on appearances and historical background.

Lolo has been at the receiving end of comments such as “You are too thin for a black girl, or you don’t walk like a black girl” – all coming from black people. Lolo became aware that people judge you for what you look like and not for who you are. She took photographs of herself with a wig on which made her look ‘English’ and ‘high and mighty’. She calls her work fun but interspersed with many layers.

She loves her urban environment and the people in it and named one of her projects Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder. Here she captures colourful people wearing colourful clothes that don’t match but she calls it ‘street fashion’ and represents something of the lives of the people she is photographing. “I look at fashion and how it creates identity, because fashion plays with identity,” she explains. “That’s how I look at fashion in South Africa, it’s fun and it’s like play – my clothes aren’t really me, I just have a style and I have fun.”

Overseas critics have said “It was a shock – an awakening shock – to come upon the bursting contemporary colours worn by the fashion-struck people portrayed by Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko on the streets of Johannesburg.” – Mark Stevens in New York Magazine Art Review.

This colourful young photographer was born in 1977 in Bodibe in the North West Province, but grew up in Cape Town where she matriculated at the Luhlaza High School in Khayalitsha. Art and creative thinking were part and parcel of her extended family. Her father was a musician but most of her artistic influence came from her beloved art teacher, Mr Ackerman in her formative years, and John Fleetwood from the Market Photo Workshop in her latter developmental stages.

Lolo studied graphic design at the Cape Technicon (1995) and then photography at the Market Theatre Photo Workshop (1999 – 2004). She was nominated for the MTN New Contemporaries in 2003 and was awarded a two-month residency with the International Photographic Research Network (IPRN) in the UK where the project looked at work, identity and clothes.

2006 saw her hitting the broader international circuit, showing work on Personae & Scenarios - the new African photography at Brancolini Grimaldi Arte Contemporanea in Rome, Italy; Olvida Quien Soy - Erase Me from Who I Am at the Centro Atlantico de Arte Mordeno in Las Palmas, Canary Islands; on Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, at the ICP in New York; Bieler Fototage: Physiognomie, Museum Schwabe, in Biel, Switzerland and on International contemporary photography: the living is easy at the Flowers East Gallery in London.

On the home front she showed Second to None, curated by Gabi Ngcobo and Virginia MacKenny at Iziko SANG in Cape Town, and Freestyle: Sanlam Fashion Week 2006 at Afronova in Newtown, Johannesburg.

Lolo’s work was also featured in the book, Women by Women, 50 years of Women's photography in South Africa published in 2006 and edited by Robin Comley, George Hallett and Neo Ntsoma.

2007 has been a busy year for Lolo - her work was included on Reality Check, an exhibition of contemporary South African photography at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK) in Berlin curated by Pam Warne of Iziko South African National Gallery. Her portraits feature alongside the acclaimed late Malian photographer, Seydou Keita at Danziger Projects, New York in Seydou Keita and Lolo Veleko Fashion. Here her portraits show her subjects to be highly individualized and independent and suggest an implicit collaboration between artist and sitter. There is nothing haphazard in the choice of dress or pose or in the execution of the photographs.

On accepting the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art, Veleko said, “it’s an affirmation to me that when I self doubt the work I do, I AM NOT ALONE! This award means that someone in my own country has noticed and acknowledged my ideas that I would like to convey to the world about Africa and Africans. Therefore I am looking forward to collaborating with many Africans to tell our side of the story. I know that Wim Botha, Kathryn Smith and William Kentridge have won it in the past, so it shows me that I am on the right path,” says Lolo with a smile.




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