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Front Row with Ranji Mangcu

Kuthiwa I Have My Fathers Eyes, by IQHINA.

Front Row with Ranji Mangcu

Our next interviewee for FRM is someone I personally view as a creative hybrid; well-versed within a variety of creative disciplines, such as fashion journalism & photography. Ranji Mangcu is New York-born & Johannesburg-raised, and I think this geographical duplicity is inherently evident within her work. Her creative practice involves a thorough investigation of her own culture and identity – utilising an arsenal of mediums at her disposal in order to narrate unique stories.

Photography by @iqhinabyranjimangcu

I am simply enthralled by Ranji's ability to generate visually stimulating images which interrogate-yet-celebrate the cultural lineage of a contemporary Black African woman. Ranji's photographic style feels warm, intimate & sensitive, bound to the honesty and sincerity of the Black Gaze.

Her work possesses the innate ability to celebrate Blackness within its entirety; accurately portraying her subjects using her unique portraiture skills.

Two Cleopatras, 2021.

Although Ranji's photography has, and continues to, contribute such an important part to her creative journey – she now finds herself within an exciting new chapter of her life working primarily as a fashion writer. This comes as no surprise to me as Ranji's first love seems to have always been fashion & the media ecosystem which surrounds it. From growing up engaging with images of iconic women such as Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Kimora-Lee Simmons, and Lebo Mathosa, to present-day binging Hollywood Reporter Roundtables – Ranji has always gravitated towards the world of fashion media. This attraction was certainly illuminated by her decision to pursue (and complete) a Masters in Fashion Critical Studies at Central Saint Martins, London (UK) – one of the most prestigious Fashion institutions in the world.

So I had the absolute pleasure of virtually engaging Ranji in order to hear more about how the dichotomy of culture throughout her upbringing influences her work, the final project of her undergrad, 'IQHINA', what the future of fashion photography is, and more.

Ginsberg, 2021.

Would you mind introducing yourself and including a short description of what you do?

RM: My name is Ranji Mangcu; I’m a fashion writer and multi-disciplinary creative from Sandton, Johannesburg (which is where I’m currently based). I love reading, photography, watching movies, finding new musical obsessions and binging Hollywood Reporter Roundtables. I am currently a fashion writer.

How would you describe the style of your photography? What inspires it?

RM: My photography mainly stays within the realm of portraiture. I’ve taken a bit of a break from fine art photography since finishing my degree, but I’ve found that the practice itself stays with me.

What has remained consistent about my relationship with photography is the core desire to document my friends and family whenever the opportunity arises. Fashion has always been a key element of my photographic practice, especially in the final project of my undergrad, 'IQHINA', which documented my families’ performances of identity through uniforms. My mother’s family are deeply involved in the Salvation Army and my Dad’s in education and academia. Both sides have used fashion and photography to communicate their Black working/middle-class identities as part of these structures — each generation sharing what they have and continue to hold dear. You could say that my style of portraiture is in conversation with that practice.

Two Cleopatras, 2021.

So whilst doing my research, I discovered that you were actually born in America, to South African parents. How do you personally feel this dichotomy of culture throughout your life has influenced your work?

RM: When my parents moved back to South Africa, my older sister was 5 years old and I was less than a year old. With that said, any “Americanisms” that I may have adopted, I would have learned from her or from TV like most of my peers. With that being said, I can definitely recognise cultural hybridity in my identity, and therefore anything I put out into the world. However, I don’t think I’m alone in that experience. My identity is more deeply informed by growing up Black in the suburbs of Sandton, raised mainly by Gen-X, Eastern-Cape-native, Xhosa women, while attending predominantly white, Christian schools.

Image courtesy of @ranjimangcu

I am Xhosa and was raised bilingual. With my parents being natives of Ginsberg township in King William’s Town, Bantu Stephen Biko and Black Consciousness ideology were a staple in our household. We made the annual December pilgrimage to the Eastern Cape, and I was immersed in communal Xhosa spaces, where aunties wittily exchange gossip while working, or over tea. But there has always been that distance, and that feeling of being uninformed about certain cultural cues and details of Xhosa spirituality and cultural practices. The way that I try to bridge that distance is by staying curious, asking questions and seeking to understand, which is what IQHINA was about.

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to have touch-points to my family history – including an extensive photographic archive that my Mom built from the late 80's into the 2000's. I then discovered my grandfather’s photographic archive in 2020 while I was producing the project, which went all the way back to the 1910’s. This intergenerational practice of archiving has allowed me the privilege of inheriting more details about my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the people that they were against the backdrop of Apartheid. This has, in turn, informed my own approaches to archiving and thinking through what it means in life, in art, and in fashion.

Image courtesy of @ranjimangcu

Do you have a specific process when creating these images for your photography? (Which I definitely consider as artworks more than anything)

RM: I don’t have a very detailed or consistent process. The way that I’ve always been able to put my ideas in order and make them make sense has been by writing about them and laying out the story that underpins them. I then make an unrealistically detailed shot-list and do my best to execute it. I photograph my friends and family a lot of the time, so the actual process of photographing people is really about making sure they feel free and comfortable to pose and perform.

uPumezo, by IQHINA.

You have completed your Masters in Fashion Critical Studies at Central Saint Martins one of the most prestigious Art schools in the world (in my opinion). How was this overall experience for you?

RM: Attending Central Saint Martins was a beautiful experience. I loved exploring London, and becoming close with an amazing group of people in the process. I found incredible peers in my Black classmates, with whom I co-founded 'Hemline' — a collective of Black women, working at the intersections of research, journalism, curation and creation in fashion.

Having spent the whole of 2021 at home, trying to figure out what to do after my undergrad, I approached Central Saint Martins with an idea of what I wanted to take away from it, but with a relatively open mind about what the process would look like.

I benefited a lot from engaging with the Fashion Journalism majors in particular, gaining more understanding of the value created by fashion media within the fashion system, and the vast possibilities for being a professional in fashion. Being the only Black South African in my course, I had an interesting time re-imagining my positionality in the broader fashion industry. I also had the interesting opportunity to observe how Central Saint Martins was navigating their own critical — relatively fresh — conversations about decoloniality as a fashion institution.

MaMqadi, by IQHINA.

According to you — what is the future of Fashion Photography?

RM: In the era of Ib Kamara, Campbell Addy, Rafael Pavarotti and more, Fashion photography is currently in incredible hands. I value the growing voice of Black artists in this space, and I love seeing more people engage in the ecosystems that exist just in fashion image-making — from styling and creative directors, to casting. Many of my classmates from CSM are artists who are accomplishing amazing things in this regard.

I feel like — especially with how little infrastructure there is in fashion in this country — it becomes extremely hard for people to honour their talents and navigate this industry in a healthy way. However, there are a lot of crucial conversations happening within the industry that are leading to real change; not only in fashion images, but behind the lens, in production teams. I think that as long as the industry doubles down in this regard, the future of fashion photography holds lots of exciting possibilities!

Photography by @iqhinabyranjimangcu

Is there any advice you've picked up within your short career which you could impart to any young emerging photographers (like yourself) attempting to make a name for themselves within the local/global industry?

RM: I am still very much in a place where I’m continuously learning, which I think is a great place to be in — it keeps me adaptable.

I know that after I completed my studies in Fine Art, I felt extremely unprepared professionally. I was lucky enough to have a curator close to me, who gave me key guidance in terms of protecting your work and putting terms & conditions in place for how it’ll be used in future. If you’re still a student — learn about your “Certificate of Authenticity”, your “Memorandum of Agreement”, etcetera. I think the value of legal and financial stuff — thinking of yourself as a professional — is often understated in art school spaces, which puts us in a weird position when we must now navigate an outside world with little stability and infrastructure for artists.

I’ve also found that learning to write about your work helps a lot if your intention is for it to be digested by other people.

Photography by @ranjimangcu

What are you looking forward to most in 2023?

RM: I’m back in Johannesburg (as a young adult now, rather than a sheltered teenager), and working in fashion more than fine art. I’m looking forward to learning more in fashion, being outside the house more, and learning to love this city!

uTata kaHlumela - Salute, by IQHINA.


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