Filipe Branquinho’s series of photographs titled Showtime (2012–13) is a provocation – one that encompasses the thorny social politics surrounding women, race, economy, place and nationality. It comprises six photographic diptychs, the left side of each depicting an element of architecture from the Rua de Bagamoyo area in Maputo, Mozambique – old colonial buildings, such as Hotel Central, once grandly glamorous, now dilapidated, yet still with a melancholy beauty emphasised by their light and colour – the right side, an image of a woman posing in a sparsely furnished bedroom.
So who are these women? They are prostitutes who regularly use the hotel to provide services to their clients. And what do they have in common? They are all black, all bare-breasted. They all stare directly into the camera, some confrontationally, some provocatively, some as if they are laughing a little at whoever is viewing them. Most of them wear nail polish, sometimes chipped, in varying shades of red – from pillarbox to maroon. Their breasts all seem natural and are at different stages of perkiness according to age, size and the effects of gravity. All the women also wear knickers, or something to cover their pubic area. Yet the people who use these prostitutes are absent. I would presume they are men, but given I know nothing of the context, I do not want to generalise. So these women pose for us viewers alone.
By photographing these women in their place of work, ‘dressed’ as objects on display, their profession and status immediately confronts us and is questionable
It would be all too easy to read them, as I have above, as generic, homogeneous beings: they are nearly naked, they are prostitutes and they have seemingly allowed a male artist to objectify them. But what if we knew more about who they were? How would we react then? What if we knew about their lives, histories, backgrounds and daily routines? It’s all too easy to lump women (and yes, humans in general) into categories and stereotypes, as the media and society at large do, as it makes them easier to dismiss – from skinny (supposedly) anorexic models to butch militant lesbians, girl-power pop heroes, the feminist ‘twitterati’, burka-clad (supposedly repressed) bodies, bitchy alpha power-hungry careerists and middle-class oversexed twentysomethings. And in many ways this is what Branquinho has done here in his home country and culture: by photographing these women in their place of work, ‘dressed’ as objects on display, their profession and status immediately confronts us and is questionable.
However, what happens if we read these architectures as theatre sets, and the women as performers? The framing, staging, sparse surroundings and poses of the women are both more theatrical and cinematic than they are ‘real’. Branquinho also paid these women the going rate for their time and asked them to pose in any way they wished. The shots he took of the buildings were carefully composed and lit – often through windows, framed by doorways or looking from the inside to the outside – all tropes used in cinema and theatre to enhance and influence the narrative being portrayed. Therefore, perhaps, as the title Showtime connotes (this is also the title the prostitutes have given to the hotel rooms they use themselves), this was Branquinho’s own ‘show’: a purposeful provocation, addressing the infinite art-historical lineage of the male gaze, while jabbing at the easy cultural, racial and social assumptions that we can be so quick to make.
This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue.