Fly By Night, the latest solo exhibition by acclaimed photographer Justin Dingwall, was shown in its entirety for the first time recently. With this body of work, Dingwall continues his investigation into the depiction of beauty in difference while focusing specifically on xenophobia, diaspora and migration across the African continent and the negative stigma that is often related to these constructs.
Justin Dingwall, best known for his acclaimed series Albus, has exhibited extensively locally and internationally, including in the USA, Spain, Germany and the UK. He was part of both the Sasol New Signatures and Absa L’Atelier Top 100 exhibitions in 2014 and 2015, a Thami Mnyele Fine Art Award 2014 Top 5 Finalist, a gold winner for portraiture at the Fuji Film Awards and an award winner at the 2013 IPA – int’l photography awards.
Dingwall began working on Fly By Night in 2015, which was recently shown at Lizamore & Associates, taking a total of three years to complete the body of work. ‘I really take time to craft each piece from the conceptualisation to the research, finding and creating objects to put into the imagery and then finding the right models for the artwork,’ says Dingwall. ‘Each piece is meticulously planned and all details are considered.’
In some images from this series, models Joseph Ntahilaja, Emy Ozori and Anyon Asola cradle or are placed alongside a black swan – a metaphor through which Dingwall questions concepts of beauty, otherness and xenophobia. ‘The idea for these images started at a time when South Africa was focused on the issues of xenophobia,’ says Dingwall. ‘Many people were leaving their homes from outside South African borders and travelling to find new places to fit in. They were looking to find a new identity in South Africa. The folktale of the ugly duckling inspires a theme of acceptance, and being discriminated for being different, the young swan is not accepted and he leaves in search of his identity. This links with the characteristic that swans are nomadic, forever in search of better living conditions. The theme of movement is foregrounded in the symbol of the swan and it also mirrors the movement of people, both in search of a place to fit in and to exist.
‘The “Mary” figure symbolises comfort, acceptance, protection, provision and compassion in a way that can be perceived as motherly. The beaded veil that the female figure wears over her eyes represents the unconscious dismissal of indifference, the acceptance of a person that involves a blindness to their dissimilitude, the mother that overlooks any disparity in her child and accepts their uniqueness. A black swan is specifically portrayed in contrast to the more common white variety to represent the contradictions to the norm.
I don’t follow trends, I’m not trying to fulfil someone’s brief, I’m not trying to advertise a product or an item of clothing or a garment, what I am trying to do is truly capture the essence of the person in front of me
‘To represent beauty in difference, the swan is a central symbol in these images, not only depicting beauty in difference as well as the acceptance of dissimilitude, it also evokes the black swan theory in accordance with the turmoil caused by xenophobia in South Africa. A black swan event depends on the observer and these images express the perception of the unforeseen and unexpected calamity that occurred, and what some perceived as predictable circumstances in reaction to the pressure faced in society, others viewed with shock and disbelief. The black swan theory emphasises that knowledge comes with hindsight. These images aim to provide a means of coming to terms with these social issues in an effort to increase our awareness towards changing our perceptions.’
In some images, Vanessa Snyder’s exceptionally crafted paper owl sculpture digs its talons into Asola’s arm, in others, a crow hovers nearby. ‘First and foremost, birds represent freedom, perspective and a messenger. The reason I decided on the owl is because the owl represented wisdom and truth and the raven/crow represented transformation, guidance, rebirth and I really like the idea of rebirthing transformation in terms of a rebirth of ideas, a rebirth of understanding,’ says Dingwall.
‘Even though the birds are made of paper, I wanted to give them a sense of life, I wanted you to look at them and feel as though they would take off at any moment. I wanted them to embody potential, the potential that they have the ability to fly off the page and become free. The reason for my placement of the birds is to show a different connection between each of the birds. If you look at one of the images, the owl’s talons firmly grip the skin, I wanted to make people feel something when they viewed it, I wanted to make people question why is this happening. Within another image, you’ll notice that Anyon’s hand is extended to the sky and the raven has landed on her hand almost as in a dance to show the symbiotic relationship that there can be unity.’
In addition to working with Snyders, Dingwall worked with Chloe Andrea who created the ethereal white clothing that the models wear, as well as the epic paper dress worn by Asola. ‘It’s very important when I’m working on these bodies of work that I work with people that I can trust, that I feel have the same aesthetics and also that I can trust to actually pull off what I’m trying to create, obviously it wasn’t an easy task and it’s also very hard to get to what you want,’ says Dingwall.
‘I did give Chloe as well as Vanessa very detailed briefs on what I was trying to create. And it was very very important for me that they were able to fulfil those briefs as closely as possible because within the imagery everything needs to work together – I don’t want there to be a hero of the shot.
‘When I talk to my collaborators on what I’m trying to create, I want them to have the same passion towards it and it’s really great to have people that you can storyboard as well as go back and forth between because sometimes they might suggest something that you’ve overlooked or there might be some part of the process that you don’t know about that can actually add to it. It’s very important to me to actually work with other people on the project. I was very happy obviously with the final products that Vanessa and Chloe created and I really feel that the entire project came together quite beautifully and that the message that I was trying to get across really did come through.’
The use of blank, white paper to create these bird sculptures and some of the clothing, Dingwall says, is a metaphor for life. ‘Our futures are unwritten and what I really like about paper is that it’s a malleable object that we’re able to craft and change and turn it into something that is both useful and beautiful. Paper also symbolises physical communication in our modern world.’
With titles like Erinyes, Call of the Siren and Disposer of Lots, Dingwall brings references to the Greek myths of the Furies, the Three Fates and the Sirens into play. ‘The reason that I decided to use Greek mythology is that myths are more than mere stories, they serve as a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures. Myths are sacred tales that explain the world and people’s experiences and a lot of Greek myths are stories that tell us about battles between good and evil, and the reason that I focused on these specific Greek deities and beings is that they represent our fates and the journeys we take to find a better life for us and our families, and that if we have the desire to grow and the openness to change and the ability to accept new experiences into our lives then we as a society can truly grow and become stronger for it.’
Although he works as both a commercial photographer and a contemporary artist, there is no overlap. While working on his visual art projects, Dingwall says that, ‘I don’t follow trends, I’m not trying to fulfil someone’s brief, I’m not trying to advertise a product or an item of clothing or a garment, what I am trying to do is truly capture the essence of the person in front of me. It is one of the hardest as well as one of the most rewarding things to be able to capture the person in front of you, to collaborate with that person who feels comfortable enough to be able to give a part of themselves to the actual imagery. When someone actually views the work in person, I want them to be able to feel what I was feeling at that moment.’