Color and Commonality

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By Conor Risch


Through environmental portraits of people living in settlements on the outskirts of major South African cities, and of southern Africans working in mining and other industries, Zwelethu Mthethwa has earned international recognition as one of the leading voices in post-apartheid South African photography. A photography educator since 1994, Mthethwa has exhibited his work internationally, and this month his first monograph is being published by Aperture.

Mthethwa first made portraits of people living on the periphery of South African cities while studying at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, where he is now a senior lecturer. At that time he was working in black and white, and says he did not fully understand his motivations for making the portraits or "the psychology behind photography."

Knowing that he wanted to study in the United States, when Mthethwa graduated he applied for and won a Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed him to attend Rochester Institute of Technology. The experience was transformative. "In Africa at that time we still didn't have a history of photography, there were no references, so going to RIT really helped me because it gave me an infrastructure of knowledge about portraiture, about the use of photography," he recalls.

When he returned to South Africa in 1989, Mthethwa gave up photography because he was interested in working as a fine art photographer rather than a photojournalist and could not make a living as the former. Through selling drawings, however, he was able to fund photographic work, which he resumed in the mid Nineties.

This time, he worked in color, which allowed him to show the vibrant ways the people he photographed decorated their homes using whatever was available. "Black and white tends not to look at the esthetics," he says. "I was interested in how they decorate their homes; [in] black and white you don't see the color that they use."

Using color also allowed Mthethwa to move away from the history of apartheid-era news photographs of the settlements�black-and-white photojournalism "used to suit political agendas of the time." As art critic Okwui Enwezor notes in his essay on Mthethwa's work, "According to Mthethwa's theory of color photography, black-and-white reportage was itself complicit in denying the indigent inhabitants of settlements. . .any claim to subjecthood. It placed them within the status of news items: victims rather than persons, specimens instead of individuals."



Mthethwa's subjects use items like newspaper pages, magazine photographs, colorful found paper materials and posters to decorate their homes. "They try to be very creative with their spaces, with the little money that they have," he notes.

"I really wanted to empower the people," Mthethwa says of his work, and the collaboration of his sitters was essential to this goal. "If you only direct people it's 100 percent your point of view," he says. Often people would ask Mthethwa to give them some time to wash or put on different clothes. His only direction to them was asking them not to smile. By asking their input he worked to create a level of trust and intimacy. He also gave them prints of their portraits so they could see how he portrayed them.

In his series Empty Beds, Mthethwa shows the empty interiors of mens' hostels around Durban built by the government for migrant workers, keeping the attention on the way men decorated their beds and created their own spaces in a communal environment.

Among Mthethwa's other projects are portraits of coal and quartz miners, sugar cane farmers and brick workers. In 2008 he created a series, "Common Ground," in which he sought to compare the experiences of marginalized people in Cape Town, whose homes were destroyed by wildfire, and Hurricane Katrina's victims, whose ruined homes he photographed in New Orleans.

As South Africa has opened its borders to an influx of immigrants from other countries, housing shortages, unemployment and xenophobia have become major issues. Mthethwa has begun working in neighboring southern African nations like Mozambique in an effort to understand the origins and experiences of the immigrants. "I think that it's a very important thing to do to show that Africa is very diverse but there are commonalities as well," Mthethwa says. "That's what I will hope to achieve."
 

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© RENE BURRI/MAGNUM PHOTOS
Obituary: Rene Burri, Magnum Photographer, 81

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