We are CapeTonian is a collaboration between Cape Town Partnership and the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town that celebrates migrants’ contributions to the economic and cultural vibrancy of Cape Town. By creating a space to hear a different story each month, we hope this series will enhance and challenge common perceptions of migration.
Frank Mukendi is a fashion and streetwear photographer who lives and works in Cape Town. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Frank connects with people by striking up conversations about and capturing images of the clothes they choose to wear.
Tell us a bit about your birth.
I was born in Lubumbashi, a city in southern DRC where there are only two seasons – the rainy season and the dry one. I am the firstborn son, but have three older sisters and one younger brother. In our culture, there is a particular feast you have when a firstborn son is born. Most of my family still lives in Lubumbashi.
And where do you live now?
I live in Claremont.
How did you come to live in Cape Town?
As soon as I finished school, I knew I wanted to leave Lumumbashi and look for a challenge elsewhere. One of my sisters was living in Johannesburg and invited me to join her there, so I did.
I soon found, however, that Joburg moved at a pace that was just too fast for me, especially because I couldn’t speak English very well at the time. This made finding work really hard, so I decided to come and join a friend in Cape Town.
What did you do when you first arrived in the Mother City?
It’s a funny story, actually. When I first arrived, I met a woman who really wanted to learn French. She asked if I could teach her. Thinking she was joking, I said I’d charge her R10 an hour and to my surprise, she actually pitched up for the first lesson. We started with the alphabet and greetings, but turns out I’m a terrible teacher.
It all worked out well in the end, though, as she ended up helping me get my first job at a clothing shop in St George’s Mall. It was very challenging, as I was still learning English, but everyone wanted me to speak their language to – Afrikaans, Xhosa, English. Three languages all at once! Xhosa was pretty easy to get, at least, because it’s quite close to Swahili, which is one of the languages we speak in the DRC.
Now, I can speak French, Swahili, English, Xhosa, Lingala and a bit of Afrikaans.
So what kind of work do you do now?
I’m a photographer. But, this isn’t what I was ‘supposed’ to become. In DRC, if your father is an engineer, you become an engineer. So, I started off by studying engineering at university, but I did not finish.
When I came here I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, so signed up for a graphic design and photography course at the College of Cape Town. I loved photography from the start, so decided to concentrate on that.
Now, here I am today, doing mostly fashion and street photography under the name Mukendi Photography.
What do you love about photography?
When you’re walking in the street and see the confidence someone has when they’re wearing something they obviously love. Something that someone else may not be able to pull off. And when you ask them why they’re wearing it they get really excited to share their story. This makes me love what I do.
What is your favourite thing about Cape Town?
The people. Cape Town has good people and also many different kinds of people. You will meet every type of person here, from all over. I’ve even met people from Czechoslovakia.
What is your least favourite thing about Cape Town?
It’s quite tough to make a name for yourself as a creative professional. For example, I recently got a contract for a good photography job. As soon as a white guy from overseas arrived, they dropped me and used him. I would have understood if it was about my work, but I don’t think he was better than me. After he left, the same people still want to work with me. I really don’t like it when people undermine me in this way.
Do you feel Capetonian?
Hmmm … Do I feel Capetonian? (laughs) I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that question. Maybe the best way to explain it is to compare it to how I feel in DRC. When I go back, I feel Congolese because I know where to go and people treat me as equal.
I guess you can call yourself Capetonian, yes, but sometimes in some places, you feel as though you really don’t belong, just because you don’t speak the language.
If you could sum up Cape Town in one word, what would it be?
When do you feel most integrated into the city?
When there’s a big event – Open Streets, for example, or Streetopia in Observatory. I feel good to be there because I don’t think people judge you.
Nobody cares about what the next person’s doing. Everybody feels free to bring their own ideas. I feel good when I’m in that kind of situation.
When do you feel least part of the city?
In my area of work. I don’t always feel part of the city. While I was studying, I didn’t experience discrimination, but you find a lot of it in the professional world.
Do you feel like you are contributing to Cape Town?
Yes, I do. Especially when I get to photograph meaningful moments and events and share them with the world. Recently, for example, I took photos at a basketball workshop that helps disadvantaged kids and I gave the photos to them, which made them very happy.
Have you ever gone back to DRC?
No, I haven’t. I really want to, but last time I wanted to go, my mom came to visit here, so we had to save up for that.
What do you miss most about DRC?
I miss friends, family and the food! In DRC, we love fish – we have a lot of sorts of fish. But here, there aren’t nearly as many.
What do you wish other Capetonians knew about you?
I want people to know that I love to hear people talking about their fashion, I love their confidence and passion for what they wear. I learn from every single person I meet.
I want people to know I work hard to be where I am – and I’m still working hard to be where I want to be.