Brett Rubin is a Johannesburg-based photographer and visual artist whose practice is concerned with challenging the conventions of the medium via an exploration into memory, infrastructure, and landscape; and how we traverse these spaces internally and externally.
Over the course of his career, Rubin’s work has been exhibited and featured in various capacities including the Design Indaba, Edinburgh International Art and Fashion Festival, Nirox Winter Sculpture Exhibition, and more. He’s also well-known through his iconic portraits of the late, great Hugh Masekela. Back in 2018, we featured a portrait of Masekela by Rubin on our front cover, just two months after the jazz musician’s passing. The accompanying feature, ‘Snapshots of a Legend’ looked at the relationship that Rubin and former partner Nicole van Heerden had with Masekela over the years, having worked as the musician’s photographer and stylist respectively.
In this catch-up Q&A, we talk with Rubin about his photographic practice, his historic new home, and the revisiting of his Masekela images through a new exhibition at The Market Theatre.
We featured your work on the cover of Creative Feel back in March of 2018. What’s happened since then? Can you catch us up?
That cover was published very shortly after Hugh Masekela’s passing on 23 January 2018. It came out and was such a poignant tribute to him. Since then, I have continued to work closely with the Masekela family and the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation on several projects.
In 2019 we released a set of portraits of Masekela for sale with proceeds going to the Foundation. These were exhibited at Circa Gallery in Rosebank during Joburg Art Week in September 2019.
Tell us a bit about your latest exhibition, Stimela at The Market Theatre. How did it come about and what can viewers expect?
When the artistic director of the Market Theatre, James Ngcobo, saw the initial set of portraits, he really wanted to bring a Hugh Masekela exhibition to the Market Theatre to honour his great friend, whom he had worked with previously on Songs of Migration, which was directed by Ngcobo and performed at The Market Theatre in 2010. I decided to include three new images into the exhibition that were previously unpublished. I opted for the title STIMELA as it was a project I had long wanted to see realised. I had previously, in 2017, discussed the idea with Hugh of creating an official music video for his iconic song Stimela: The Coal Train, using charcoal animation to recreate the world so vividly described by Masekela in his spoken anecdote that he added to the song when performing it live. Last year I discovered the wonderfully talented animator Thabang Lehobye’s work and immediately knew he was the person to bring this vision to life. I discussed the project with Thabang and he brought so much enthusiasm to it. I introduced Lehobye to James Ngcobo and he immediately got commissioned to make an animated set design for a production called Passover at The Market Theatre. We have currently completed visuals for three minutes of the 10 minute song and are including that as a preview of the animated video for Stimela. We aim to release the full song later in the year.
How was your work impacted by the onset of the pandemic in 2020? How have you adapted?
On some levels it was greatly impacted initially, as I was unable to go out and take photographs. This did however finally grant me the time I needed to work on updating my archive of work. During this period, I revisited a lot of work and unearthed some images I had previously missed, including two new Masekela images that have never been seen before (also included in the exhibition).
I also used the time during lockdown to compile a new series of multi-layered works titled: Labyrinths of Progress which uses the sacred form of the Labyrinth to re-imagine the city and all its inner workings. This can be viewed on my website: www.brettrubin.com
What’s keeping you inspired at the moment?
I recently purchased a house that previously belonged to one of my all-time photography heroes – David Goldblatt. We take occupancy in May 2021 and there is still the office and darkroom where Goldblatt hand printed so many iconic images that he took throughout his stellar career. I intend to re-establish my own darkroom there and develop and print my own film images at some point in the near future. The idea of living in such an historic space is deeply inspiring to me.
Where can our readers find more of your work?