By Lloyd Pollak
The internationally recognized South African photographer, Zwelethu Mthethwa’s most recent body of work, “The Brave Ones”, which will be exhibited at I-Art in Cape Town in May, consists mainly of portraits of young, male adherents of the Shemba Nazareth church.”
The church, founded in 1910, commands a large following throughout South Africa, particularly in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Transvaal. A blend of Christianity and Zulu tradition, the church prescribes smoking, drinking and fornication and insists on strict obedience to the Ten Commandments. Young male members of the aged from about ten to eighteen, wear a special uniform for major ceremonies which are celebrated outdoors on the verges of forests.
Untitled | Chromogenic print | 81.3cm x 104.1cm | 2011
Their outfits of Scottish tartan or checked skirts, frilly, loose, white shirts like blouses, bow ties and close-fitting hats embellished with floral rosettes and appliqués, often give the youths an androgynous appearance.
Religion is not the subject matter. The exegetical nub of “The Brave Ones’ is two pronged. Zwelethu’s concern with the indeterminacy of sexual binaries is coupled with his study of the construction of identity amongst adolescent males as they come of age, and assume their manhood.
What Zwelethu captures are private rites of passage, both conscious and unconscious, and the feminine costume worn by the boys, gives an added sharpness of definition to his analysis of the porousness and elasticity of gender. Taken as a whole, the photographs spell out a narrative in which certain lads conform to the norm, others struggle with it, and a few reject it.
In Zwelethu’s vision, masculinity is defined by example, rather than instinct. It is something we imbibe by a process of osmosis from our elders and peers. Masculinity is learned. It is an ideal that we imitate, study and perform like an actor embracing a role. Many of the boys in the portraits are captured at that fluid stage of development when their future personalities remain latent, embryonic and undefined. Some boys may appear to relax in front of the camera, but that is not to say that they do not ‘pose’.
‘Posing’, in the sense of assuming and relinquishing a variety of different masculine identities, of experimenting and improvising, is seen as an intrinsic part of their evolution, and despite its self-conscious quality, it is a spontaneous mode of behavior. They ‘try on’ identities, like garments, so as to see which ‘fit’ them best.
Facial expression, gesture, stance all form part of this performance, shoring up the chosen persona, the elective ‘self’ the boys present to their fellows. The litmus test of the success with which they have internalized the exemplum of manliness is the confidence with which they present themselves to the camera, and the boldness with which they return the gaze.
Untitled 1 by Zwelethu Mthethwa | Chromogenic print | 81.3cm x 104.1cm | 2011
In Untitled 1 for example, a confident lad stands with his legs parted, his hands on his hips, and his head proudly thrown back as he looks down at us with imperious self assurance. His stance with the weight of his body carried by his straight right leg; the other, relaxed and slightly outstretched, and his hands on his hips is a triumphal pose implying victory vaguely reminiscent of Donatello and Verrocchio’s David. He boldly confronts the world, dominates the space around him, employing body language so virile that the skirt fails to feminize him.
Nonetheless the skirts, blouses and hats problematise accepted notions of masculinity. Our prime association with men in skirts is transvestitism and cross-dressing. Although there is nothing overtly sexy, slinky and sensual about the costume, which certainly does not suggest drag, it nonetheless gives rise to tensions between the femininity of the garb, and the masculinity of those who wear it.
The costume also complicates our notions of indigeneity. A Zulu boy in the countryside of his native province should look at home, yet the lad stands out from the landscape, rather than blending in with it, and his zooty outfit, the immaculately laundered, starched and ironed white blouse, the natty bow tie and the snazzy hat appear urban, rather than rural, and identify the boy with the city rather than the country.
The conflict between urban and rural allegiances constitutes another theme of the series, and resolves itself differently in each photograph.
Untitled 2 | Chromogenic print | 81.3cm x 104.1cm | 2011
Untitled 2 could almost be a pendant to Untitled 1, for the boy is portrayed in precisely the same setting as his predecessor. The two portraits provide contrasting studies in boyhood and the assumption of a male identity. This diffident lad appears embarrassed to be the centre of attention, and our scrutiny makes him flinch. His imploring gaze seeks to disarm us, and conveys awkwardness, misgiving and confusion. His appearance is that of a shrinking violet, and he has as yet to develop the confidence which enables his predecessor to overcome the femininity of his dress and return our gaze with such manly aplomb.
In this, and all the other portraits, the boys are presented in a rural setting that severs them from the familiar environments of home, school and playing fields, depriving the viewer of information, so that they emerge as generalized archetypes of youth. The portraits also isolate them from the religious community to which they belong, as in Untitled 1 and 2, where the other church members are relegated to the distant background, so the boys confront the uncertainties and challenges of puberty in isolation and solitude.
The older male and female adherents of the Shemba Nazareth church are relegated to the background where they become the faceless representatives of humanity as a whole. Another device that lends universality to the images are the gravel and trampled grass paths that wend their way into depth, disappearing into the sides of the landscape setting and vanishing into the unknown.
They introduce the concepts of life as both a road and a journey, life as a venture into terra incognita, and the bifurcating paths embody the multiple choices that confront the boys at this critical stage of their development.
The same gender contrasts occur in the double portrait untitled 3, an exquisite composition in which the unstable diagonals of the tilted trunks and twisted branches of the trees conduct the eye to the two verticals of the standing boys.
Untitled 3 | Chromogenic print | 81.3cm x 104.1cm | 2011
The lad on the left, is game, plucky and at home in the wild. He looses himself in his fantasy of being a pioneer conquering nature, and converting it to human use. With his right hand he grasps the branch of a tree, while he proudly plants his left foot on a fallen trunk as if he had felled it, and the commanding pose suggests he is a born leader. As in A, his dreams of conquest and dominance are conveyed through the expressive openness of his body language: his widely parted legs and arms convey the vigor with which he grapples with the wild.
His companion is not a participant in his boyish fantasies. Within the male psyche there are polarities between the masculine aspect of personality and the female aspect, and at the age of puberty they appear to wrestle for supremacy. It would seem that the boys naturally fall into patterns of dominance and submission. There is the hero and there is the hero-worshipper, there is the leader and there is the follower. One fellow is active, adventurous and masterful while the other is unassertive and ineffectual. Like Untitled 2, his passivity expresses itself in closed body language.
The boy stands stolidly with his hands behind his back, and his arms aligned flush with his trunk do not interact with the world, and contain, rather than release, his energies. He takes satisfaction in the doings of his mate, but although he expresses mute approval, he remains a witness.
The architecture of the Shemba Nazareth churches exploits the age-old symbolism of trees as emblems of continuity, growth and all that is deep-rooted, stable and enduring. In urban centers, the Shemba Nazareth churches are built, not of bricks and mortar, but of living, growing trees, and the church changes its appearance with the seasons, shedding leaves or bursting into bud. High holy days are celebrated in the midst of nature in scraggy groves or forests of scrub. Paganism survives in the Judaeo-Christian symbol of the tree of life for its origins lie in the nigh universal pre-Christian worship of trees as sacred objects inhabited by a God.
Elements of such animism seem to have been assimilated into the Shemba Nazareth creed for the boys identify themselves with the forces of nature, and the trees they climb and clutch become the conduit whereby they absorb this élan vital.
Untitled 4 | Chromogenic print | 81.3cm x 104.1cm | 2011
In Untitled 4, a V-shaped composition, a boy retreats into a leafless tree which somehow infuses him with the courage he needs in order to face the camera. Ensconced amidst the whiplash curves traced by the serpentine branches, he appears like a dryad or woodland sprite, so at home amidst the boughs, that they appear to be his natural habitat. Secure in his perch, he yields himself wholeheartedly to the camera staring with a trusting candor and openness into the lens.
This is a touching vision of childish innocence and spontaneity, of a boy portrayed before the onset of self-consciousness. In this, it is akin to another image untitled 5, a marvelous study of two grave and solemn young worshippers carrying the red rulers they have been awarded as prizes.
The two rulers look exactly like the candles carried by girls presenting themselves for their first communion in the paintings of Bastien-Lepage and other luminaries of the 19th century salon and academie tradition, and, the photograph provides an incomparable study of youthful piety.
Some of the photographs are set amongst the tawny grasses and stunted trees of the dusty plains of the Transvaal, but others shift the scene to the lush and fertile landscapes of flourishing verdure and long silky grass found near Durban.
Such settings appear Edenic, and they convey strong associations with the prelapsarian and halcyon. Such idyllic terrestrial paradises represent untrammeled Nature, and literary and artistic convention both insist that those who inhabit such Arcadian realms remain entirely in touch with their primal urges and instincts. Yet paradoxically in two of these photographs, Untitled and untitled 5, Zwelethu’s examination of male camaraderie and bonding exudes strong homoerotic overtones. In H which portrays two older boys, the one to left throws his arm over the shoulder of his mate in a gesture that signifies intimacy and possession.
Untitled 5 | Chromogenic print | 81.3cm x 104.1cm | 2011
He wears a knowing leer and an ambiguous half-smile plays on his lips.His companion directs a resolute gaze at us, staring the viewer down and daring him to censure his behavior.
By introducing so-called deviance into Elysium, Zwelethu challenges two of the most enduring myths of Western culture – the idea that sexual ‘normality’ exists, and the Rousseauist belief that man in a state of nature acts in absolute conformity with his God-given nature, which is of course, always construed as heterosexual.This is a courageous statement to make when black lesbians are being attacked and murdered in South Africa, and punitive legislation discriminates against homosexuals in many countries of the continent.
Zwelethu Mthethwa gave South African photography a radically new slant by concentrating on the psychological rather than the political, replacing the news photograph and reportage with portraiture and the study of the sitter’s make-up and personality.
The presentation of the black subject in the work of the photographers who preceded him, largely ignored the singularity of those they portrayed, whereas Zwelethu’s principal concern was, and is, with the complex psychology of his subjects which he captures with a depth and subtlety that remain unsurpassed.
With the advent of apartheid, photography evolved into a tool of protest and resistance, and even after the advent of democracy, it was still mainly used to draw attention to injustice and abuse.
Photography was the critical vehicle par excellence, and its focus was society and the iniquities of racial discrimination. Its practitioners sought the general, not the particular, and submerged the black subject amidst the oppressed masses. Blacks were presented as embodiments of socio-political problems, or stereotyped as exploited victims. They were denied all individuality and agency and reduced to pale and impotent abstractions.
Zwelethu rebelled against this reductive vision, jettisoning the long-standing tradition of documentary reportage and enshrining the individual - seen in all his uniqueness and specificity – as the focus of his lens.
Portraiture became his forté, and the studies of the residents of informal settlements that he produced from 1994 till 2004 brought him resounding international fame. Instead of purveying predictable images of misery and deprivation, as previous generations did, and many of his contemporaries still do, he resoundingly celebrated his sitters’ moral triumph over adversity. He visited Crossroads (a squatter camp on the outskirts of Cape Town) on a regular basis, struck up conversations with passers-by, won their confidence and was invited into their homes. A force of nature if ever there was one, Zwelethu’s chuckling warmth and demonstrative good nature instantly won over his hosts who readily collaborated with him in the construction of their portraits.
“It was important that I offered them the chance to decide how they wanted to be photographed”, Zwelethu states. “It was a token of respect bestowing dignity and authorship upon them”.
Zwelethu is scrupulously ethical in his approach. He rigorously avoids ‘candid-camera’ invasiveness, voyeurism or exploitation. Everything proceeds above board. He gives his subjects ample time to prepare the face they wish to show the world. The session is a process of negotiation: the photographer ‘directs’ only in the most unobtrusive fashion by encouraging his sitters to experiment with pose, gesture and expression, giving advice and making suggestions until they finally arrive at a visual solution satisfactory to both parties.
By portraying his sitters within their homes, Zwelethu synthesizes two genres. His photographs are both portraits and interiors. By revealing how his sitters impact upon their immediate surroundings, emblazoning it with their personalities, tastes and interests, Zwelethu captures far more of their character than would be possible in a conventional studio portrait.
The interiors act as addenda to the portraits, furnishing rich supplementary insights.
Okwui Enwezor wrote: “Mthethwa’s work challenges conventional ideas of the black subject as a ground-down, dispossessed, disempowered and abject figure in need of social sympathy. His grand images … speak persuasively of the dignity of the subjects in the face of their entrapment.” The vehicle of this rehabilitation is color.
Color expresses the resilience, pride and pluck that give his sitters such viability and bounce. Color is energy, color is affirmation. A jostle of pulsating hues, a scrum of patterns and a swatch of textures turn the shacks into theatres of optical drama.
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