Words by Lumumba Mthembu
Though Themba Mbuyisa anchors the photo series, When Breadwinners Are Away, in the absence of migrant labourers – who are often parents – from the rural community of Mandeni, little to no absence registers on the faces of those left behind. When we gaze into the eyes of the subjects in Mbuyisa’s portraiture, the emotion that resides there ranges from defiance to stoicism, contentment, and even smugness.
In most of the frames subjects occupy the centre, squared up to the camera in a frontal position. Some arms are folded and some hands are crossed while others rest at their sides, but these confrontational postures elicit no pity, instead forcing the viewer to meet the subject on level terms.
“If you are going to look at me, then I am going to look at you,” says the ochre-encrusted visage of the grandmother whom we have interrupted from tilling.
On her right, a boy young enough to be her grandson tugs shyly at his sleeve. These two represent the age profile of the bulk of the subjects in When Breadwinners Are Away, with the exception of the smartly dressed teenager in the fifth image.
He is fast approaching an age when he will have to leave Mandeni to enhance his prospects, for, as Mbuyisa exhibits in Distant Relatives, the rural community is hardest on the young to middle-aged who have no option but to remain there. Time alters nothing in these parts as poverty defies the laws of physics by resisting change: a constant everywhere else.
The cycle repeats: grandparents raise grandchildren while the nucleus remains absent, like the family of the forlorn child in the red and white hooped dress. Her expression is unflinching and accusatory as she stands superimposed against a bed of bushes, emphasising the loneliness of her daily fight to mean something in a wild world. Bare legs wear the scrapes of brushes with obstacles that will trip her into adulthood, but her dress is grimly rolled up at the sleeves because she has no option but to meet them.