Essay by Okwui Enwezor, Interview by Isolde Brielmaier
Though this is his first monograph, photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa’s uniquely personal portraits of South African life have won him international attention for decades. Most images that reach us from southern Africa fall into a category that essayist Okwui Enwezor calls “Afro-pessimism”—they horrify, polarize, and suggest that the African experience is and always has been distant from our own. But Mthethwa stands apart from this tendency, capturing images of working class communities that blur boundaries between South Africa and America, focusing on intimate domestic spaces that seem familiar to many audiences, and collaborating with his subjects to create portraits that engage viewers on a personal rather than politicized level.
Compare Mthethwa’s portraits to the work of other photographers on the South African scene today—Pieter Hugo, for example, who recently exhibited with Brodie/Stevenson, Johannesburg. Like Mthethwa, Hugo turns his lens on laborers, but he often treats them as objects lost in a landscape. He captures them heaped on train cars or half-shrouded in the smoke of marketplaces, so that we are struck by the overwhelming and dehumanizing toll that harsh environments have on individuals. Mthethwa gives the opposite impression. Foregrounding the expressive faces of his subjects, he demonstrates how individual personalities withstand and resist environmental forces. He urges us to consider the personal traits we share with the workers he portrays, rather than the differences in our circumstances.
Mthethwa does more than snap photos of his subjects—he collaborates with them. Where more journalistic photographers pursue accuracy by capturing subjects unannounced, Mthethwa begins by speaking at length with them in the street, then invites them to fix themselves up and arrange their homes however they see fit before they are photographed. In fact, he makes sure that they are comfortable enough with his images to send copies to their families. His photographs are meant to function as full-color letters home, not as newspaper fodder, and for this reason, his subjects’ poses seem especially charged. Against a backdrop of yellowed newspaper, young man stands stripped to his waist before a washbasin. This is not a moment caught by chance—the young man agreed to be immortalized in this vulnerable pose, or requested it. The blend of virility and gentleness in his stance is a carefully arranged declaration. His self-aware expression engages us, lets us know that we are learning something about his intentions, and not just the photographer’s.
In his best-known series, Interiors (1995–2005), Mthethwa explores the lives that migrant workers create for themselves while separated from their families in rural townships. He follows them not into fields or factories, but into their homes, where their inner worlds are expressed though décor. Here we find a smiling woman seated on her neatly-made bed, surrounded by a collage of glossy photos taken from fashion magazines, all displaying confident, powerful bodies. We learn nothing about this woman’s work or about life in her township, but by studying her posture, the images that decorate her room, her tidiness, we learn something about her as a person. The task at hand is not to empathize with South Africans in general, or even migrant laborers in general but, very simply, with the individual before us.
Mthethwa does not, however, rely completely on personality to captivate viewers. His “Common Ground” (2008) depicts houses destroyed by flooding and fire, bearing traces both of the homes they once were and the elements that tore them apart. At first glance, these images stand as captivating studies in color—rusted aluminum siding contrasts with ashen turf, brightly painted walls bear stripes left by rising floodwater. But the scenes seem doubly interesting when you discover that they are taken both in South Africa after several townships were consumed by wildfire, and in New Orleans after Katrina. You can’t tell one locale from another. Leaving each image untitled and the locations un-named, Mthethwa lets us see for ourselves that impoverished communities are neglected on American and South African soil alike. The Afro-pessimistic sense of difference between the two continents begins to dissolve.
Even if we set aside Mthethwa’s social commentary, the way he handles the subjects in his portraits remains fascinating in itself. In one image from Interiors, a young man poses at the edge of his humble bed, just beneath a poster displaying a voluptuous, bikini-clad blond sprawled on wet sand. It’s not an unusual juxtaposition for Mthethwa—he often plays with the contrast between daily life and the fantasy world of commercial photographs. But there’s another element at work here. The pin-up girl supports her slender torso with her left elbow while seductively tracing the valley of her waistline with her right—and Mthethwa’s subject assumes that very same position. Mthethwa revels in overt twinnings and echoes in his images, as if to underscore the artifice of his portraits and remind us of the collaborative interaction that occurs between him and the workers that sit for him. This artifice prevents us from imagining that his images were captured by chance, from imagining that they have any objectivity. It urges us to consider South African life not in the broad strokes of headlines, but on an individual level.