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Interview with Giya Makondo-Wills on her Project 'They Came from the Water While the World Watched’.

‘They Came from the Water While the World Watched’ by South African Photographer, Giya Makondo-Wills, is a project that explores both South African Ancestral beliefs and Christianity in relation to missionary activity and the colonisation of the country. Her work discusses the attempted dismantling of Ancestral religion and its replacement with Christianity, whilst considering Documentary Photography combined with the Western Gaze.


We had a chat with Giya to find out a little bit more about her body of work and the image-making process. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarification.

Anne: What was the inspiration behind of your project ‘They came from the Water While the World Watched?


Giya: All of my South African family are a part of one of the largest black/brown church in Southern Africa to my knowledge. They specifically mix Ancestral practice and Christianity, for example, when my grandmother prays, she prays to both God and ‘the gods’. That's where the idea for the project came about. There are so many crashes on the road so whenever we go out in a taxi, she always prays and I realised this. I knew that she was a Christian but I always wondered why she would also pray to the Ancestors, so I then started to wonder where the idea of Christianity came from in South Africa and also how did it spread so quickly. The more I started looking into archives, I then started looking into Missionaries, especially British missionaries, and I realised that so many tactics were used by Missionaries to dismantle ancestral practices. They really love this idea of colonisation with consciousness, so when they would dismantle someones ancestral practices and replace it with Western ideologies such as the currency, the way houses are shaped, everything from the top to the bottom, they would then use it to oppress people.


Anne: How would certain representations of Africa make you feel?

Giya: Like you, I’ve always been so interested in the ethics around photography especially Documentary photography, I think it is so problematic in many ways. I was so angry at seeing representations of Africa and seeing people making work of where my family is from, which a lot of them are from the township. I would get so frustrated in seeing Documentary photographers go there and feed the same narrative, they weren’t really saying anything any different.


Anne: What I really liked about your work is that I saw a collaboration going on between you and your contributors- since we are now moving away from using the term ‘subject’ as it somehow dehumanises the people in front of the lens. I did not see the typical- ‘oh, look at these Africans’ kind of narrative which was refreshing to see.


Giya: There were many times that I wouldn’t take my camera with me to photograph people, even though I was taught as a Photographer to always take my camera with me. When I went to the church, I refused to go with my camera, I took part in the service, spoke with the people and then asked the pastor if I could bring my camera with me the following week. You also just need to have respect, some people feel uncomfortable in front of you, which is one of the reasons I chose to work digitally because when you work digitally, you can show people the back of the camera allowing them to have a say on how they want to be seen.

Anne: My last question is, what advice would you give to someone who is also making work on Ancestral practices and colonisation, because I am worried that it is becoming a trend in terms of the Black Lives Movement, then people wanting to make work on the Ancestors, which ends up leading to the meaning and authenticity becoming lost and something a bit superficial.


Giya: I would say that when it comes to my personal experience, my dad raised me and my brother with the knowledge of the Ancestors, so it was something that I always knew, it wasn’t new to me. For those making work on Ancestral practices, it is important to know the history behind ancestral practices across the world. It is also important not to fantasise on what the ancestors are, due to some Hollywood movies, it kind of created this kind of fantasy around the subject. Look for people that are practising now, look for traditional healers, find out what the correct terminology is, the only way you can learn is by going directly to the source because many people try to pull things from different cultures and religions and mix them into one, but that is not how it happens, so do your research, read books and be conscious of what it is that you want to show people about Ancestral practices.


Giya Makondo-Wills is a British-South African Documentary Photographer who makes work on Identity, Race, Colonisation, The Western Gaze and Systems of Power. To view the rest of her work, visit her website.


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