Gongxeka found himself pulled toward fashion portraiture. “Growing up in the township, I learned that how you dress matters,” he said. Clothing was seen as a status symbol, a sign of where you were on the Soweto food chain. Particularly within fashion portraiture, he became interested in “how one’s masculinity, gender, and sexuality can be judged by how we present in public,” he explained. “I wanted to know whether all those stereotypes about me were real.”
Gongxeka’s first series, “Skeem’ Saka,” which translates loosely as “Homeboys in the Township,” was ostensibly a fashion shoot of life in Soweto, featuring street pictures of his friends. But the work also served to challenge the violent, misogynistic depictions of black masculinity he grew up watching on South African television.
In 2014, during the creation of “Skeem’ Saka,” Gongxeka received news that had the potential for seismic consequences in Soweto. His eldest sister, Nolwandle—who, at the time, was 30 years old—told her family she intended on pursuing a relationship with another woman, a revelation that Gongxeka openly admits was fraught with complexity and conflict for his family.
South Africa, on the surface, should be a beacon of LGBTQ rights. In May 1996, it became the first nation in the world to include LGBTQ people as a protected class through its constitution. In 2005, gay marriage was legalized. Sustained legislation has protected non-binary people from discrimination in the workplace, improved access to healthcare, and helped make Johannesburg one of the most vibrant LGBTQ scenes in the whole of Africa.