New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 8 February 19 to 26, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Moments of Beauty
Zwelethu Mthethwa
New Works
Don Burmeister
Untitled, Hope Chest series  by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Source: jackshainman.com
Zwelethu Mthethwa, "Untitled, Hope Chest series"

If you need an incentive to get through the cold streets of Chelsea on a winter gallery crawl, you can do no better than to aim for the warm, open photography of Zwelethu Mthethewa currently on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery. Equal parts anthropologist, supreme connoisseur of light and color, snoopy neighbor, and an all-around photographic mensch, this South African photographer’s large format photographs of people and places in his homeland have an open, non-cynical viewpoint unafraid of conflating political and social realities with visual and aesthetic pleasures.

The current show presents work from three ongoing series. The first, entitled “The Brave Ones”, is represented by just four photographs (although others are available,) and centers on young men and boys who are members of the Nazareth Baptist, or Shemba, Church. In this particular sect (there are apparently many) Mthethewa photographs members dressed in cotton knee length kilts, white shirts with ties, white socks and assorted small cloth hats, (at least during services.) Posed singly or in pairs outside against a lush green background, Mthethewa elicits from them neither smiles nor defiant looks. His subjects look as bemused about their situation as does the onlooker.

The second series, and the major portion of the show, takes as its ostensible subject the traditional South African Hope Chest: large wooden chests are given to newlywed brides, and kept thereafter as the woman’s personal safe box. Mthethewa photographs the boxes and their owners, sometimes in the context of the owner’s home, and other times with the box brought outside and shot against the backdrop of the green countryside. In one notable picture we see a woman sitting on her chest near a fairly new looking tractor.

Untitled (Hope Chest series)  by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Source: jackshainman.com
Zwelethu Mthethwa, "Untitled, Hope Chest series”

The chests themselves range from relatively simple, laminated-wood boxes, to older, more elaborate pieces with extensive chiseled woodwork and decorative hardware. Needless to say the chests are lushly photographed, but, as might be expected, the owners are the central interest in the photographs. It is clear that the arrival of Mthethewa was a well-anticipated event. All the women have dressed-up for the occasion, some in their Sunday best, some in traditional clothing. Again there are no smiles, the women’s expressions seem to range from mistrust and apprehension to curiosity to some degree of resignation. It is a curious circumstance for everyone involved, and the photographs convey the ambiguity of the situation.

The third series in the show continues one for which Mthethewa has become well known: the living quarters of migrant workers in South Africa. Shot usually without their occupants present, but always with beautiful light entering through windows or doors are the quarters of migrant workers in Johannesburg and Durban; a neatly made bed against a white washed wall with painted slogans, a sink top still-life of brushes, toothpaste and the shard of a mirror, and a corner of a room decorated with football magazine pages — “Bafana Bafana!”

Without the workers present Mthethewa forces the issue of political versus aesthetic realities more to the fore than if the workers had been pictured. We are looking at the lives of some of the poorest and most oppressed people in South Africa. Behind the neatly made, sunlit bed, there are myriad social, political, diplomatic and financial problems. But, it is here that Mthethewa’s genius shows. His work does not aim to simplify or politicize the lives of the people who are the subjects of his photographs (either directly or through their personal objects.) Instead, it revels in the complex ambiguity of life itself, the strange circumstance that indeed odd moments of beauty exist even under the meanest conditions.

Stylistically, Mthethewa is not a groundbreaking photographer. He is firmly in the Big Color tradition that will undoubtedly be the signature style of our age. However, he is one of the most accomplished of the style’s practitioners, and his underlying humanity will keep his images relevant long after more cynical and superficial work is relegated to the “period piece” storeroom.

Beautiful light entering through windows or doors are the quarters of migrant workers in Johannesburg and Durban; a neatly made bed against a white washed wall with painted slogans, a sink top still-life of brushes, toothpaste and the shard of a mirror, and a corner of a room decorated with football magazine pages — “Bafana Bafana!”

Zwelethu Mthethwa
New Works


Jack Shainman
513 W 20th St.
Chelsea         Map

212 645 1701
jackshainman.com

Thursday, January 24 to
Saturday, February 23, 2013
Hours: Tue-Sat, 10 to 6
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