New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Zwelethu Mthethwa
Zwelethu Mthethwa
Inner Views
Reviewer # 1
Zwelethu Mthethwa

Where would photography be without the poor? From the days of Jacob Riis in the tenements of New York, Walker Evens in the share-croppers shacks of the south, and now Zwelethu Mthethwa in the houses of poor migrant workers in Johannesburg, photographs of the living quarters of the poor have provided an unbeatable combination of voyeurism and moral concern for those whose budgets don’t extend to fashionable furniture. That is not to say that there has not been a change in approach in the last 100 years. Jacob Riis’ images, with their stark, phosphorus-lighted rooms and the suprised, or stuptified, or just plain drunk inhabitants are still rather shocking - all those unwashed feet! The rooms in the images by Mthethwa on the other hand are neat, clean-smelling spaces. There is a concern for light. What comes across is the care that the inhabitants have put into making their spaces into livable, deliberated rooms. And, the care that the photographer has put into recording these spaces.

 by unidentified photographer.
Zwelethu Mthethwa

Social agendas have changed over the years. Today dignity and respect are key words, and this is certainly the message in this exhibition. Could the tables be turned and vile looking dives be seen in Johannesburg today? Were there rooms on the Lower East Side a hundred years ago where the diffuse light from an air-shaft window spread out over a plaster wall and neatly made bed? We will never know.

There are 4 prints in this show that Mthethwa shot in New Orleans shortly after hurricane Katrina. They show the same concerns with color and light that inform his work from South Africa, but the underlying message here rings hollow. These are images of destruction, there is a facile interest, but they are essentially dead and decaying artifacts. The images from South Africa are alive, jackets and ties are hanging on the wall, ready for the next day’s work.

Zwelethu Mthethwa
Inner Views


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Thursday, July 15 to
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