Percy Mabandu

Alf Kumalo.jpg

Alf Khumalo, Portrait of Winston Mankunku, 1968

© Alf Khumalo Family Trust. Courtesy of AMO Picture Library

Alf Khumalo sees Winston Mankunku


The fog of my childhood was yet to lift when Alf Khumalo’s iconic image of jazzman, Winston Mankunku Ngozi enthused my consciousness with all things jazz and arts. An intertextual entanglement: the photographer and the musician have since defined a jazz and visual cultural moment. An epoch-marking moment that has shaped how we remember them both. Khumalo’s photograph of Mankunku adorns the cover of the classic 1968 record, Yakhal’inkomo, by the Cape Town-born reedsman. 

His picture is a composition of Mankunku as a young man taking a smoke break between performances. The location is unnamed. It should not matter. Nothing else should, apart from the contemplative saxophonist sitting alone in the dark. We can make out Mankunku’s likeness thanks to the glare of light that catches the edges of his seated figure. Some of its radiance catches the gooseneck of his saxophone and his lit cigarette. It burns gently between his fingers. There’s a ghost-like draught of smoke. It is caught in the inverted pyramidal space between the man and his tilted instrument.  

The rest of the picture is an impenetrable darkness, a black mass of space. Out of it, the lonesome figure rises like a vaporous suggestion of a man. There’s no posturing, no music and no words, only mystery, smoke and potential meaning. The image could evoke the night world of itinerant musicians and thrill seekers: night time people to whom jazz music is an indispensable soundtrack, a cure, a sonic vehicle to escape a kind of social death that devours black life; a way to escape the persistent anguish that dogs their lives; it’s a conduit to becoming something other than themselves, for a moment, for a night, for the duration of the song.

This, so that the pictured man dissolving into the sea of darkness codifies a larger truth. The photographer, by dissolving and merging the ghostly figure into his environment, questions his individuality. 

Khumalo’s photograph was taken during a time often referred to as high-apartheid: the year in which the racist repressive state was most brutal and self-assured. A season of darkness that finds contradiction in the music and the hope it bellows; a productive dynamic of myth and melancholy.

So Khumalo’s photograph posits and registers Mankunku as all his kin and kith, into an everyman, or a non-man of sorts. The picture makes him into all black people. Mankunku, as seen and caught by Khumalo’s camera, is framed into the zone of non-being where he exists as a fungible body devoid of agency. Sarah Bery has called this an existential reality that demands black existence and presence but simultaneously constructs blacks as outside of humanity. Hence to see him as nothing more than his blackness or darkness is to see enough, since to see him as black is not to see him at all. 

In that childhood fog, the record turning and twirling in my parents’ living room, the album cover catching shafts of lights, the image also became the sound. I heard Khumalo’s image and saw Mankunku’s music bellowing, Yakhal’inkomo!