Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sabelo Mlangeni at Brodie/Stevenson

At a recent colloquium held at Rhodes University, writer and academic, Ashraf Jamal admonished South African artists for their dour palettes and monochromatic art works. In his view the absence of bold colour in the South African art canon is a manifestation of a state of mind that pervades South African art (and literature), in which moral seriousness overrides a playful form of expression, which he likened to a kind of "wakefulness". Jamal suggested such choices are not stylistically determined but are ideologically and culturally motivated, reflecting a vexed and existentialist relationship with the South African landscape and society.

Within this context it appears as if Sabelo Mlangeni is continuing this legacy with this latest photographic exhibition which presents two bodies of work in a monochromatic palette. He too seems caught within this staid artistic tradition that Jamal believes suffocates imaginative engagement with the present.

Without a doubt Mlangeni's art is propelled by a degree of moral seriousness; while one body of work documents visits to his hometown, Driefontein near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, articulating this fixation with place that Jamal lambastes, the other features the poor living conditions at a men's hostel on the East Rand. One can suppose that Mlangeni's documentary mode of expression motivated his decision to shoot in black and white (or perhaps he drained the images of colour in Photoshop afterwards): this stark, no-nonsense palette is the language of the objective documenter. Colour, which is aligned with emotional responses, introduces subjectivity into the art making.

Mlangeni hails from a school of art photography in which the journalistic vocabulary informs not only the style of the work but the subject matter too. This language can be limiting, impeding an engagement with form and with its focus on relaying social conditions, the content is governed by the burden and responsibilities of representation. It is perhaps this burden that contributes to the sombre and sober brand of art that has come to characterise much of the photographic work that is produced in this country. Photographers such as Roger Ballen, who has blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction, has identified ways of renegotiating these limitations, but nonetheless, his work is also marked by gloomy tones. But the dreary browns that infuse his photographs give experssion to the manner in which his subjects are steeped and trapped by dirty, impoverished living conditions.

For Mlangeni a black and white palette further enhances or gives expression to the uninviting, cold, concrete environment where his subjects live. One cannot discount the fact that, particularly in photography, the black and white palette allows the photographer to make a distinction between art and reality. Because we do not view the world through a black and white lens, when it is presented to us as such we look at it anew: it is both familiar and outside of our experience.

For example, in a photograph titled Morning Blues (2008) in which Mlangeni presents a man in bed with a cellphone lying next to him, the monochromatic palette works at elevating this ordinary act to something poetic. This scene evokes a metaphoric language; describing that which we cannot see in the photograph; the man's emotional state, his yearning to remain connected to his loved ones. The thin, seemingly fragile cord that extends from the phone and out of the pictorial frame functions as the tenuous link that he has with the world outside the hostel. Mlangeni documents the minutiae of the men's lives in a hostel; from showering behind a plastic sheet, to the kind of footwear the men wear when they are relaxing, to them urinating in the outdoors next to the mobile toilets. The blurring of the lines between the public and private in this body of work suggests that in this environment there are no distinctions.

His black and white palette draws further attention to the details because colour can often function as visual noise, diluting the composition. So while Mlangeni wants his viewers to be aware that what he is presenting is real, it is his intention to accentuate the nitty-gritty realities of this world.

Of course, the work does risk fetishizing the disenfranchised but mostly his subjects are not objects of scrutiny. Besides Mlangeni's prying lens is also focussed on the architectural landscape of the hostel. Chunks of concrete lie on the ground near a wall featuring the spray-painted impression of a man and a woman copulating. This brings into focus the most painful reality of a men's-only hostel. That their most basic need - to be with women and the physical and emotional intimacy that this fosters - is not being met.

Thus a moral imperative informs Mlangeni's art but perhaps this trend in South African art has to do with the fact that artists in this country continue to view art as a social tool. - published in The Sunday Independent, April 18, 2010

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