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Freezing the spirits through the lens

Photographer Sethembiso Zulu’s Ikhaya lika moya evokes the powerful spirituality of photography writes Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni  

After seeing Ikhaya Lika Moya – an exhibition by Sethembiso Zulu I am led to believing in photography’s ability to transcend the world of the living and the departed. The exhibition, which is curated by the celebrated artist Senzeni Marasela, is being hosted virtually on the North West university website. The work features gritty and deeply emotive black and white images taken during worship at a Zion church which is also Sethembiso’s spiritual home. The spirited images are eerily remnicent of Andrew Tshabangu’s Footprints work.

The images are close enough for you to hear the iconic spirit of ukuzotha in Zion worship and still far enough to give respect and recognisance to the owners of the space, abantwana bo moya. They pay homage, not only to Zulu’s space of spiritual safety, but also to the ancestors that have called him to become the healer we all need in these trying times. Zulu, who is a South African born visual artist, documentary photographer and multimedia producer, is also a healer who practices African spirituality. The images he has made evoke a sense of his intimate connection with the spiritual world that no other image maker can emulate,  his ancestors whisper in his ear and at the perfect moment an image he makes is able to manipulate the presence and absence of light and capture the motions and terrors of souls in transcendence.

The images which are part of a trilogy gives the viewer a vivid but intimate glimpse into his lived experiences as a healer whose lived experiences include interpreting  dreams, prayers, interactions, songs and visions in his healing practice.

Not only do these images introduce the viewer to a world far removed from the glamourous or ideal atmosphere of contemporary photography but they also nudge us gently to appreciate and embrace the parts of African spirituality that have become taboo to us because of our colonial inheritance of religion.  “I was once told by the late documentary photographer Peter McKenzie that is impossible to photograph spirits but you can give an indication of what you think spirituality looks like and what it is about  or the depictions of what spirit real realm would look like in my own opinion. This is why most of the images contain movement and reflect a desire to capture and freeze time,” Zulu says.

This exhibition is a necessary break from the uncertainty of the period we live in, perhaps a much needed reminder of the vast powers that lived before us. At a time like this Ikhaya Lika Moya is a quiet flood of fresh waters falling to replenish the dry land and though it is presented in an unconventional manner due to the Covid-19 pandemic the strength of Zulu’s  technical skills and powerful aesthetics are able to carry the experiences that this exhibition speaks to well.

In our conversation about the work he points out that creating a virtual experience was a challenge.“I think the only challenge I have is sharing the experience and the feel I want the viewer to gain on an online platform as opposed to a walk-in show, whereas our plan for the show is to have props, video installation, audio rooms. 

“The entire experience couldn’t be altered in an online show or a virtual one. So the real challenge was creating that experience on Ikhaya Lika Moya for viewers.”

The exhibition is open until the 7th August 2020 and it affords viewers from all walks of life a uniquely honest look into the intricacies of spirituality and healing. The layered work which is deliberately photographed in black and white transports viewers into a world of renewal and becoming during a time when the world is desperately in need of it. To see the virtual exhibition visit:

All images copyright: Sethembiso Zulu

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