Giya Makondo-Wills explores race, identity and colonialism in her powerful photography


Photographer Giya Makondo-Wills sees herself as a “magpie, collecting information from all over, whether it be anecdotes, research and memories, and putting them together”. Her ability to tell stories in a way that represents both her subjects and herself as a photographer developed during her time at the University of South Wales while studying Documentary Photography.

“It was the only course I ever wanted to study on and the whole ethos of the course just felt right for me,” Giya explains. “Being able to study documentary photography in a very intimate and intense setting for three years was an absolute blessing. My year was really small with only about 17 of us, so we had lots of one-on-one time and it really helped me to grow as a photographer.”

Giya’s course was tight knit and supportive, and the photographer feels it was in this encouraging environment that allowed her to develop her personal style and understand what she wanted to say as an artist.

“I learnt from my peers and my tutors not to be afraid of being ‘pigeon-holed’ as someone who makes work about race, identity and colonialism. I think it’s quite easy to be scared about going into an industry which is predominately composed of white middle-class men, and I wanted to be seen as a more diverse artist as opposed to someone who makes work about one thing,” says Giya. “I soon learnt that making work from experience and having a personal connection to a project is how I work best.”

Doyenne is an ongoing project that sees Giya photograph both of her grandmothers: one in the suburbs of east Sussex and the other in a township near Johannesburg. “It’s really changed my relationship with both of them, as I’ve started to get to know them as individuals rather than just my grandmothers,” she says. “The project has been a bit of a ‘coming of age’ process for me, really exploring my identity and these two incredible women who in part make me who I am today.” The series is thoughtfully composed and we’re given insight into the homes of each woman, which in turn reveals the similarities and contrasts between the two matriarchs.

Giya is has been working on another project related to her identity and it encompasses the different facets of her work she’s trying to communicate. They Came From the Water while the World Watched “depicts indigenous South African ancestral belief and christianity, in relation to missionary activity and the colonisation of the country”.

“So much of the inspiration came from just talking to my parents, my own relationship with the country and memories of going there throughout my childhood,” explains the photographer. “My African family directly combines indigenous ancestral religion and Christianity, so I started thinking about the origins of Christianity in the country which are directly related to colonisation and the role missionary activity played in that. Part of the inspiration was also very obviously being part-‘coloniser’ and part-‘colonised’ and I wanted to explore the complexities of pre-colonial customs in the 21st Century and the legacy of missionary activity.”

A mix of landscape shots, beautiful portraits and group shots, this project epitomises Giya’s style, which she describes as “erratic and haphazard” but always with the intention of showing people how she sees them. “I think representation is so important, when people feel comfortable and you’re not exploiting them, the images will always be infinitely better,” she says.

Her work is full of colour and in portraiture she actively tries to “make people look epic”. “I think that comes from me wanting to say thank you for letting me photograph them, because everything I do is made possible by those I collaborate with,” she says. Though portraiture has been an important aspect of her work, during her third year Giya started to encompass other elements like landscape, metaphor and symbolism into her work as another way to tell someone’s story. “It’s opened up my ability to explain a narrative and changed my practice for the better,” she says.

Supported by A/D/O

Founded by MINI, A/D/O is a creative space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn dedicated to exploring new boundaries in design. At its heart is the Design Academy, which offers a range of programming to professional designers, intended to provoke and invigorate their creative practice.

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About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca Fulleylove is a freelance writer and editor specialising in art, design and culture. She is also senior writer at Creative Review, having previously worked at Elephant, Google Arts & Culture, and It’s Nice That.

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