Joburg inside out

2012-09-07 13:42

Lunch, inevitably, is at the famous Troyeville Hotel, even though Nadine Hutton now lives in the neighbouring suburb of Kensington.

“Where my property value is higher – as in, not redlined,” she says.

She gives me a tart look and then unleashes a burly laugh that carries across the room. People look up from their prego rolls and calamari.

She was, however, born just across the road, on Princess Street, in a house that performance artist Steven Cohen later bought.

But we’re not talking about the artistic fringe that has, for decades now, emerged from Troyeville to challenge the city’s cultural status quo.

We’re talking about phones, iPhones in particular. Hutton has created her entire exhibition - I, Joburg - on one, both stills and film.

She uses un-post-produced Hipstamatic and ungraded 8mm. She’s been working like this for two years now and describes it as “a liberation”.

“There’s none of that I’m-a-photographer bullshit,” she says, reaching for her mobile, “it becomes much more about the intention than the technicality of photography. The great thing is I’m here, I’m having a conversation with you.”

She holds the camera at chest height and I am instantly having my portrait taken as I negotiate a questionable haloumi salad.

“There isn’t this big camera sitting in front of your face. You can’t hide away from your subject and you’re constantly involved in their story. It’s the greatest thing for portraits,” she says.

Many of the characters that interest Hutton dwell on the outskirts of the city – in makeshift shelters under highways or lost in the inner-city crowd.

The black-and-white street portraits in her exhibition are laden with menace and unspoken dreams, framed so that the city becomes a breathing thing.

You have to know the rules to break them. Hutton is a respected, award-winning photojournalist, and a former newspaper chief photographer.

Today she is signed to Bloomberg News and her darkly lurid and often ironic news images go global. Last week it was illegal mining in Welkom for Le Monde.

But Hutton is transitioning from journalism to art, and from awkward girl to powerhouse.

“I left newspapers because I could not stand the corporate culture that was developing.

If I wanted to work really hard so that a CEO can fly first class then that CEO might as well be me,” then the laugh again, “I can’t fly first class, though. I don’t see the point of wasting that kind of money.”

Money is something she grew up without.

White poverty was the theme of her first solo, I Have Fallen, which was displayed as public art because she has a “discomfort about elitist white cube galleries”.

Written on Her Face was next – a document of the impact of her father’s violent abuse on her mother.

Adopted by the family as a baby, Hutton herself endured routine physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her aunt until she was moved to a place of safety.

Now, at 36, she is younger and more adventurous than when I first met her in the Mail & Guardian newsroom when she was 21, on the first day of her first job.

“I was painfully shy. I had no idea of who I was.”

Back then, one struggled to draw her into a conversation.

She speaks with a slight nasal quality from being born with a high palate.

“If I’d had speech therapy as a child, it would’ve been sorted out.”

Today she is larger than life in her jeans, black shirt, cartoonish glasses and orange cap – her arms tattooed with rocket ships and scenes from Star Wars.

Only discovering her lesbian identity at 28, today she’s an institution among the good queers of Joburg.

And she has documented them in photos and a film called Memoirs of a Killarney Houseboy for I, Joburg.

They form the other part of the exhibition’s story – another marginal culture that the city can’t ignore forever.

She has moved, as the I, Joburg catalogue so effectively puts it, “from the public into the private and from the private by making it public”.

Exposure to queer political theory on a recent trip to New York has seen her gender politics take a new shape.

“Queer doesn’t necessarily just have to do with a sexual identity, but is also a philosophy around life.

Anybody can be queer, you don’t have to be homosexual.

Being queer is not just about the bedroom,” she says.

The queers in her work are straight and gay – artist Myer Taub, public art activist Lesley Perkes, writers Germaine de Larch and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, actor Brian Webber and the like perform for her iPhone.

Like photographer and activist Zanele Muholi, she says the basis of her work is to say “we are here, we exist”, and then to have as much uninhibited fun with that existence as possible.

“I love photographing people that aren’t this kind of homogenous mush but are out there in Joburg doing things with the city, taking on their own identity, questioning things, living life on their own terms,” she says.

To her, Joburg is a love affair because of the people.

I can see that her move into art has also been a start of loving herself.

For the first time in her 36 years, Hutton is showing several ­­­self-portraits.

“I’m not that powerless child now,” she says, “I grew up with it but it’s not who I am.” And who she is is one of the city’s more glamorous outsiders.

She laughs at my phrasing, but nods.

“That’s the thing about the work I’m doing now. My life has become ... quite glamorous. My house sometimes does feel like Studio 54, you know.

“And the thing is, I don’t stop living to work. It’s part of my life and it’s such a privilege to document your own life,” she says.

»I, Joburg is on at Room in Braamfontein until September 29

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