A compulsive nomad who draws inspiration from the people he meets on his travels, South African photographer and visual artist Trevor Stuurman, like most of the world, had his wings clipped by COVID-19. But with his habitual whirlwind schedule of fashion weeks, cover shoots and styling projects suspended, the 28-year-old film-school graduate had time to think. He knew that the next generation of creatives would benefit from access to a catalog of contemporary African culture—but, he wondered, what was the best way to record and preserve such a multifaceted subject? “We are only able to see how far we’ve come by looking back,” he says by video call from his home in Johannesburg. “I wanted to document our lived experiences in Africa, in real time.”
Then, in April, a fire ripped through the archives at the University of Cape Town, damaging an important repository of Black South African culture. The cataclysm confirmed to Stuurman that his lockdown idea was worth pursuing. The online platform he’s building, due to launch in July, will be populated with music videos, art, film, writing and podcasts; he calls it the Motherland and sees it as a way to celebrate African stories from an African point of view in a way that is “fireproof, waterproof and bulletproof.”
For far too long, says Stuurman, the African narrative has been hijacked by outsiders, first by colonial invaders, then by circumstances that rendered the dominant image of Africa as one of suffering. As a young photographer, he set out to counter that story, documenting first the vibrant urban styles of Johannesburg, then street fashion across the continent. “I wanted to capture African images that did not exist on Google,” he says. His early work, appearing on Tumblr and Instagram, earned him accolades as well as commissions: in 2018 he photographed former U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya, then Naomi Campbell in Nigeria and Beyoncé in South Africa. His meticulously styled editorial shoots and advertising campaigns, for companies like Absolut Vodka and Mini, offer a new narrative—one where his largely African subjects are bold, powerful and clad in cutting-edge fashion by Africa’s emerging designers. He uses color-saturated, pattern-filled portraits to challenge the stereotypes, he says, keeping away from animal prints and ceremonial garb. “My work is about showing what Africa looks like now,” he says, “to cultivate a better understanding of what Africa is.”
That mission extends to helping others tell their stories. Having grown up poor in a small mining town, Stuurman is acutely aware of the importance of role models. He caught an early break when his street-style work earned him a nomination for South Africa’s Elle magazine stylist of the year in 2012; that exposure brought him mentorships and contacts that he parlayed into assignments with international recognition. He worked on Beyoncé’s film Black Is King for Disney+ and styled shoots for a cosmetics campaign linked to the recently released Coming 2 America, but his editorial work for British Vogue, he says, has been the highlight of his career, because of the opportunities that magazine has offered other Black stylists, photographers and designers. “It’s very important that we have more diversity and representation [in fashion],” he says. “It shows what’s possible, and it means that there’s someone who has a seat at the table, who can extend that table to make it wider and longer, for more Africans to take their place.”
Now he makes it a point to collaborate with young people whenever possible. “It’s a privilege to have a platform,” he says. That extends to his wardrobe. Stuurman doesn’t just photograph style icons; he is one. His personal goal is to wear at least one locally made item a day. “Every time you support a local designer,” he says, “you’re buying more than just a product; you are buying them time.” Time in the spotlight, that is—telling a new story about what Africa is, and what it can be.
Set production by Aart Verrips and Chloe Andrea Welgemoed; grooming by Nthabiseng Senong