Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Zwelethu Mthethwa: Power to the Poor

ZWELETHU Mthethwa only enforces one rule on his sitters: they must not smile. It’s the antithesis of what one would expect a photographer to demand. This idea is founded in Mthethwa’s belief that smiles are rarely genuine. They’re a knee-jerk response to awkwardness, he suggests.
“I see the smile as a façade, as a mask. When we are not sure what to do, we smile. So for me as an artist smiling becomes some kind of a blockage.”

This ethos has contributed towards an extensive oeuvre of portraiture offering authentic views into the lives of marginalised South Africans. Though he has painted too, it’s his photographs that have caught the world’s attention – he regularly exhibits on international  exhibitions and a new monograph was published by the Aperture Foundation last year.

You could argue that his images of impoverished subjects satiates stereotypical notions of Africa. Undoubtedly the fact that they don’tsmile might underscore their dejection. However, Mthethwa employs a number of devices to foreground the inventive ways in which they respond to difficult circumstances. In fact Mthethwa likens the subjects to artists, and is challenged and inspired by their tenaciousness.

Mthethwa is relieved to be talking about his work; he has a new exhibition on at Cape Town’s iArt Gallery, and has grown weary of discussing his involvement in South Africa’s stand at the Venice Biennale. There has been much controversy around South Africa’s participation in this exhibition because of the manner in which the Department of Arts and Culture failed to follow proper protocol and appointed a commercial dealer, Monna Mokoena, as commissioner.

Mthethwa laughs nervously when I raise the issue. I explain that at this juncture it’s a prerequisite to any conversation with him but suggest he could use the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions. It seems there is one. It was widely reported that Mthethwa refused to participate because of the circumstances around Mokoena’s appointment, but as he explains the back-and-forth negotiations between them, it becomes clear that his withdrawal from what must be the biggest and most important internationalart exhibitions, had to do with a lack transparency and disorganisation.
“No one seemed to know what the budget was. I print my photographs in New York so I needed advance warning.”
When Mthethwa finally received a contract from Mokoena, it was too late and the budget was far too meagre.
“There was not enough time to reproduce the work. I pulled out because I didn’t want to appear to be a clown.”

Dignity is an important quality to this artist, particularly that of his unsmiling subjects. Though most of his photographic essays are centred on people living on the margins – stock subject matter for the documentary photographer – he rallies against the way subjects have historically been positioned through that genre of photography. Choosing to shoot in colour and conceiving of himself as “the other”, rather than his subjects are just a few of the ways he has tried to renegotiate this brand of portraiture.

From 1995 to 2005 he photographed shack dwellers in the township of Crossroads in Cape Town. With a focus on subjects inside their makeshift homes, the series was dubbed Interiors. It featured a range of people pictured in the most intimate place in their homes, their bedrooms, which often doubled as kitchens. These neat, ordered and colourful settings, most often decorated with bold advertising leaflets, implied that these individuals had found ways of transcending their poverty, which is associated with chaos and filth. In one room a wall is adorned with a slogan or newspaper headline that reads “Battle of the mind”, pointing to the psychological games these impoverished subjects must negotiate to survive.

A 2003 series features lonely sugar cane labourers who are pictured in barren fields battling nature with nothing more than pangas. Like the sitters in Interiors they too wear these stoic expressions. Had they been smiling, the viewers’ response would be quite different; perhaps they would feel less pathos. Mthethwa aims to evoke empathy, not pity. His intention is to give these subjects a voice and allow them to claim ownership of their subjectivity, a condition that photojournalists and historical ethnographic studies often denied them.
“There is a kind of a soberness (about the photographs). In almost all the portraiture I have done, the people are aware of me. I ask them to look at the camera. It is like they are looking at the audience. It is kind of like they are returning the gaze of the onlooker in a gallery or museum. I do that on purpose as it includes some baggage with the history of photography, especially in South Africa.”

 It is in response to this “baggage” that Mthethwa has embraced colour photography. He doesn’t just associate black and white photography with a journalistic mode, but with a far more loaded kind of photograph: that of the ID book or “dompass” (passbook) – the one occasion when black subjects were encouraged to gaze at the camera.
“They are uncomfortable but they look at the camera. Most of those photographs were really horrible and people were forced to live with those photographs because they were in their ID books or dompass.”

 Haunted by this brand of imagery, which subtly reinforced each subjects’ status within the apartheid system, Mthethwa has developed a brand of photography engineered to counter it. Not only does he shoot in colour, but he will go to any lengths to put his subject at ease. He doesn’t use artificial light and, most importantly, he goes to them.
“The moment I come into your house and photograph in your house, it is me who comes from the outside. I am unfamiliar with your turf. But if I bring you to the studio it is my turf and you will be uncomfortable. I would rather it be me that is uncomfortable. I stick out as a sore thumb. I am actually the Other.”

 Mthethwa’s new series, Brave Ones, features portraits of subjects, which are difficult to place. They are young male followers of the Shembe Church, but they wear unconventional ensembles that scramble gender and cultural codes. Frilly blouses with old-fashioned bow ties are teamed with Scottish kilts and some wear pith helmets, evoking colonial dress of a bygone era. For some time now many South Africa artists have been mining identity-based themes. This has manifested in a brand of art in which the artists figure themselves in photographic images, where they are adorned in outfits that confuse and deflect their identity. What makes Mthethwa’s Brave One’s series so interesting is that he has encountered individuals who have quite unselfconsciously assumed ensembles that achieve the same objective. In this case this eclectic dress is designed for a New Year’s Day ritual. They are photographed in a lush rural KwaZulu-Natal setting, which evokes idealistic images of the English landscape, further disconnecting them from any perceivable reality.

For Mthethwa the landscapes in the background of his images are as important as his subjects. In the Sugar Cane series the picturesque sugar cane fields which dominate the visual plane are in stark opposition to his subjects, the labourers, who are attired in tattered grey outfits. He attributes his fascination for the rural landscape to an obsession with spaghetti westerns and Japanese samurai movies during his youth. Dress was important in those types of films and it piqued his interest in the interplay between clothing and identity, which has culminated in the Brave Ones series.
“Both of those (filmic) genres are about costume. Second, they are genres concerned with the landscape. When I looked at those young men it felt like a follow-up to the sugar cane cutters. The skirts they wear remind me of the samurai warrior. But this (the outfits of the Shembe worshippers) is a little bit complicated because they also wear sports socks and workmen’s shoes... I was fascinated by this.”

Mthethwa’s interest in the informal and spontaneous uniforms that emerge from particular groups of people underpinned the Sugar Cane and Brick Ladies series, portraits of women who reclaim disused bricks. Each photographic series he undertakes features individuals in similar circumstances, and most often they are manual labourers. Mthethwa is particularly interested how communities form and adapt to particular conditions – it’s an unselfconscious form of expression.
“Whether it is in the sugar cane fields or in the mines, they are people who come from quite different backgrounds and they are forced to make a culture, where they have to make sense of what they are doing.”

Transformation and adaptation intrigue Mthethwa. How mineworkers adapt to living in hostels informed his Empty Bed and End of an Era series. The latter is part of his current exhibition.
“People (living) on the margin are great artists. They are very creative and resourceful. If you look at the Interiors series they have very little resources but they make their homes liveable and warm.
“And if they go to the (mine) hostels, they manage to live with each other. When they go back home some of the men have families, they are well respected in the villages, some are indunas.”
“When they come to the hostels they have to reinvent themselves and adapt to that way of life. That transformation fascinates me. They have taught me to be very comfortable with the many identities I have.”

Though it appears that Mthethwa’s subjects have surrendered their individuality to form part of a cohesive group, subtle differences between them imply there is still room for them to assert their uniqueness. Nevertheless he denies their individuality in the sense that he doesn’t title any of his images or parade the names of his subjects. It’s a device to underscore their status within a community, he says.
“I was reading an article by Duma Ndlovu (the playwright) and he said he was comfortable to go back to Bergville where his family comes from because when he gets there he is seen as son of so and so: he is not seen as Duma, the man who has achieved this and that.
“He ceases to be an individual and becomes a member of the clan. This is the point I am trying to talk to when I don’t give my subjects names.”
Mthethwa can spend up to four years on a series. “I don’t have any expectations. I let the project dictate to me how I move. I am very fluid in the way that I work.”
I ask him how he knows when a series is complete. “It’s like when you are drinking and you know you have had enough drink.” - published in The Sunday Independent, 2011

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