Photographer, filmmaker, musician, stylist and vlogger Penjani Munyenyembe's work pulses with the spirit of collaboration and community. As he begins working towards a career as an arts educator to make spaces for creatives in Malawi, we speak to Munyenyembe about the stiigma around creative career paths, his transition into street photography and reclaiming the right of Malawians to document and own their visual narratives outside of the western gaze.
MN: You are a photographer and filmmaker, but have also done work with music and styling – how do your creative interests intersect or interact? Particularly with regards to the connection or relationship between the visual and audial.
PM: Unfortunately for my parents, music seemed to influence me as a child more than they did! Music played a huge role in how I spoke and dressed (ever since I could dress myself). I think I liked Hip Hop and RnB because most of the artists were black and I saw myself too, I could relate! The music was usually accompanied by visuals and as a malleable child I copied the style of flat caps and big baggy Jeans. So even at an early age the audial and visual interests were sparked but it took years later to marry the two into my practice, often shifting between the two exclusively. I've been writing songs/raps and recording since school.
My good friend and YouTube channel "African Millennials Travel" co-host Emob had a hand at shifting my perspective with marrying audio and visual. He is a dancer and when we were in high school, he would dance and record the footage and I would sometimes be behind the camera, funny! After, he would edit the footage and add music that he was dancing to and sync them - that fascinated me! So when we began making music together, it was clockwork - the visuals have to be considered because we both have varied experiences and skills. So I feel like the relation between audio and visual is symbiotic!
MN: In a previous interview with us, you explained that ‘life itself’ drives your work – what aspects of life prompt your creativity? Does it change depending on the medium you are working in/the people you are working with?
PM: I realise now that was sort of a vague response! By "life itself" I mean creativity is something that just flows with patterns my life is heading in general, though not always mirroring it per se. And yes, things change with the medium as with the people I am working with. For instance, when I was in Uni my work was mainly fashion focused because I had model acquaintances and I mainly shot digital because of the accessibility of gear from rental companies. But I once I graduated and moved back to my home country, I didn't have the luxury of professional models and gear so I gravitated towards film photography (for various reasons) because my life sort of became slower; even the medium reflected the change in geography, as with the people I began to collaborate with. I guess when life inspires you, its necessary to keep adapting with it.
People are a bit more conservative here and it's not the culture for strangers to take photos of you. I had to step back and tackle photography with a whole different approach. I quickly learnt it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
MN: The gaze of the subjects you capture is very intimate – they are almost always looking not necessarily directly at the camera, but certainly at the person behind it. How do you decide what and who to capture? What relationship do you have with your subjects, and does it change once behind the camera?
PM: I very much like that description of the gaze of my subjects! I've put myself in so many precarious situations for a photograph and I've been extremely lucky not to have been in any altercation to this day! Previously, when I was doing a lot more fashion work, I cultivated the habit of approaching strangers and asking if they'd be interested in modelling for me. This worked at the time and definitely boosted my confidence to talk to people and be a better a photographer. Once I returned home after Uni, I was trying those same techniques on people and I just didn't get the same responses honestly. People are a bit more conservative here and it's not the culture for strangers to take photos of you.
I had to step back and I eventually came across a lot more street photographers and was inspired to tackle photography with a whole different approach. I quickly learnt it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission. And if you spend enough time to get to know someone, it won’t feel intrusive when you snap a photo of them. With street photography, my subjects are obviously never planned out, but I guess there are some patterns I've noticed - for instance, I'm interested in the regular, everyday activities of life because that's a lot of what I see mostly. Hawkers, street vendors, children playing, men and women working.
In some sense, with street photography, I put on the hat of a documentarian and add some personal touch. When it comes to collaborative work, what and who to capture is a team effort and changes all the time. Certainly with street photography my relationship with the subject is that of "the other" - trying to understand or just acknowledge another person's existence. I think it’s important to have some objectivity, because things here are really diverse - there's fancy things and then dusty streets and children playing and it's okay to shoot all of it! When I shoot people I know or my friends, the line is a blur because they know me and what I do. So I guess the relationship with the subject depends on the intention.
It's been others (tourists, mostly westerners) who have captured and documented our lands, cultures, and people - therefore, writing our own narratives to a point where we as a people feel alienated in embracing and documenting our own. I take it as my duty to capture the time I am living in, the places and people.
MN: What role does collaboration play in your work? You have collaborated with musicians and co-host your Youtube Channel, African Millennials Travel. Is collaboration a fundamental part of your practice, or, if not, how does it alter or shape your process and final product?
PM: You got it spot on! Some of my best and most memorable works have been collaborations, and even when I attack projects on my own, they are either references from conversations with peers, or my friends are physically present accompanying me. Music has always been collaborative because I don't produce; photography and film, likewise, because I had a talent of scouting artists who I thought were better than me, or had equipment. I guess it was easier to collaborate than to take advantage of a situation or person. However, collaboration does come with a cost. People are different, visions and influences differ, so it’s important to set boundaries and also accommodate. In the process, there's always new energy being created while collaborating, so I try not get stuck up on what could've been and just get the work done! That's the beauty of being an artist, we get to decide when the work is done!
MN: How important is a sense of place to your portraiture work? And, in turn, how important is a tangible, personal presence important in your photographs of spaces, nature and objects?
PM: Photography is a very old and respected discipline internationally, more so in places where the technology has developed from. Because of that it's been others (tourists, mostly westerners) who have captured and documented our lands, cultures, and people - therefore, writing our own narratives to a point where we as a people feel alienated in embracing and documenting our own. I take it as my duty to capture the time I am living in, the places and people, because they will all be gone! It may mean nothing to people now, but looking back at the tangible evidence of this time will mean everything to future generations!
MN: What role does colour play in your visual work?
PM: I don't know anything else to be honest! Colors are everywhere here - food, nature, houses, clothing, the earth, the sky are full of bright colors! However, I would like to give Black and white photography a try; I just know I'd have to be very intentional with my subjects, so I can't wait for that! I shot a roll of black and white film last year and haven't got it developed yet, so I can't wait to see how those came out!
Being self-taught has not been easy at all, especially in this part of the world where art is genuinely looked at as a pastime or just entertainment and not a career path. It astounds me how everyone who has something negative to say about a career in art consumes some form of art! Who is supposed to make this art that we all love then?!
MN: Where do you want to take your work next?
PM: I'm at a point in my life where I want to be part of a community/organisation that can sustain my lifestyle and practices in general. Being self-taught has not been easy at all, especially in this part of the world where art is genuinely looked at as a pastime or just entertainment and not a career path. It astounds me how everyone who has something negative to say about a career in art consumes some form of art! Who is supposed to make this art that we all love then?! There’s a really big gap betweem the perspective of art here and in the west: the more trained and learned artists there are here, the better for the whole culture in general! So I'd like to be formally trained, so that I can be an educator and act as an example that this career path works. In addition, I want my work to be in spaces in my own country, and the work to create those spaces is up to people like myself! In June, my friend and frequent collaborator Gomezgani Saka opened up a small space for the purpose of hosting other photographers’ work from Malawi and selling their work on a no commission basis. We operated for a week, as we planned, but we want to do this more often and more permanently.
WORK BY PENJANI MUNYENYEMBE
HOSTED BY MILLIE NORMAN