Cole Ndelu's arresting work tackles collective memory and the portrayal of black bodies

The Durban-based artist and photographer challenges representation with her disruptive imagery.

image by Cole Ndelu

In early 2017, while still a student at the Stellenbosch Academy of Design & Photography, Cole Ndelu took a photograph of her friend Zama Mosumbuka. Dressed in all black, Mosumbuka stares just beyond the frame, her arms folded in front of her torso. Beneath disrupting elements of distortion, her expression is barely perceptible, but the image feels weighted by a discernible sense of pride and resistance.

From over 200 000 submissions from 183 countries, Ndelu’s portrait – titled Pride in the Panther – was shortlisted in the Student Focus category at the 2017 edition of the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards.

In a telephonic conversation with Ndelu, she spoke in depth about the struggle and inspiration that led to her nomination.

“It was really challenging,” she tells me of her time spent living and studying in Stellenbosch. Originally from Durban, Ndelu battled to become comfortable in the small, university town and found herself facing limitations that many of her classmates didn’t share – such as having the wrong camera equipment and having to work two jobs. Her time there coincided with the #FeesMustFall movement and she says that as a black woman, her second year was marked by a growing anger toward the status quo.

image by Cole Ndelu

Rather than react to that anger, she chose to channel her rage and frustration into her photography. By celebrating herself in her imagery and placing black bodies at the heart of their own stories, she has worked to create a space for herself in an industry in which black women’s contributions have long been minimised.  

For Ndelu, it all starts with the desire to say something. This is what inspired her Sony World Photography Awards entry. Cognizant of how the student protestors were being characterised by the media as thugs, who cared less about free education than they did shutting down their institutions, she wanted to depict the participants in a different, more truthful light.

In Pride in the Panther, Ndelu plays with aspects of collective memory as much as she does representation. Through her use of colour and exposition, as well as some sharp editing skills, she’s created an image that disrupts common perceptions and challenges viewers to look beyond the chaos. “They’re thinkers, they’re thoughtful, there is a reason why they are here,” she says of the students.

image by Cole Ndelu

Since returning from London – where Ndelu travelled earlier this year to attend the Sony World Photography Awards ceremony – she’s graduated from SADP and returned to Durban. Back home, she’s been working to grow her portfolio and continues to push the boundaries of representation with her work. One of her ongoing projects, Alt Za, is a quirky, tongue-in-cheek look at what ‘punk’ means to young, black Durbanites.

Inspired by individuals who shirk conformity in favour of going their own way, Alt Za has been an affirming project for Ndelu. She was exposed to a subculture of black women who were determining their identities for themselves, reinvigorating her belief that she could be anything she wanted. “It was so cool discovering that it’s actually not unusual to be black and punk,” she says, unwittingly solidifying the importance of representation.

Ndelu’s subjects tend to mostly be black women – a deliberate choice made to increase visibility. So, what is it like being a young, black woman artist in South Africa today? “Being a black woman is lit!” she says. “For the longest time women have been pitted against each other and told that friendships with other women leads to cattiness…and we fell for it! The truth is, when we work together, amazing things happen.”

image by Cole Ndelu

As she continues to pursue her photography – a medium she feels strongly attached to due to what she perceives as its deep ties to the idea of the truth – Ndelu also has plans to further her studies. She hopes to be able to do so in Johannesburg, a city whose energy she feels is calling her name. Until then, she says, she’ll work on remaining true to her artistic vision and taking the only creative advice she feels qualified to dispense: “Be brave.”

To keep up with Ndelu's work, follow her on Instagram