Cape Town South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa’s vivid color portraits of shack dwellers, coal and gold miners, brick workers, sugarcane cutters and, most recently, Christian worshippers are marked by a recurring compositional strategy. To call it a formula does it a disservice. Since 2000, Mthethwa has unerringly portrayed his subjects standing, seated or huddled in determinate environments (a cramped bedroom, a burned field) that offer contextual insight into how his unnamed cynosures live, work and, in the case of “The Brave Ones” series, rejoice spiritually.
One of two new photographic series exhibited, “The Brave Ones” (2011) comprises 10 frontal portraits depicting the young male worshippers (or Nazarites) who every January participate in religious festivities at Nhlangakazi, a holy mount north of the Indian Ocean port city of Durban. According to legend, Isaiah Shembe, an itinerant Zulu evangelist, was struck by lightning here in 1910. Shortly afterwards he founded the Nazareth Baptist Church, currently the most sizeable independent religious movement among the Zulu people, South Africa’s largest ethnic group.
Mthethwa, himself a Zulu, is not interested in the ritual or social organization of the church, whose theology is a fusion of Zulu traditions and Christianity. “What fascinates me is how and why people clothe themselves in these different ways,” he says in the catalogue for the recent exhibition “Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography” at London’s V&A Museum. In keeping with his stated aim, Mthethwa’s large-scale chromogenic prints focus on the unusual dress—tartan kilts, bow ties, gingham skirts, colonial-era sun helmets, knee-length football socks—of a particular sect of the Nazarites.
Mthethwa’s photographs, which do not entirely deflect ethnological readings, are nonetheless remarkable for the visual abundance they describe, sometimes unintentionally. In an untitled image, one of two pink-skirted Nazarites casually holds onto a misshapen tree in the left foreground. Adjacent to this tree is a young boy in everyday dress; he is seated on a mound, his back turned to the camera, apparently absorbed by his own activities. Pairs appear in four of the 10 photographs, an act of doubling that invites meditation on the hybrid qualities of the faith.
The verdant setting of “The Brave Ones” is a counterpoint to the cramped and impoverished mise-en-scène of Mthethwa’s earlier portrait series. An intimate study of destitution, the six photographs in “The End of an Era” (2011) were made in the substandard labor dormitories that have long housed Johannesburg’s large underclass of black male workers. Three sparse photographs depict modified electric stoves on bare concrete floors. The standout works, however, are two studies of bedside countertops. In one we see a bright green bar of soap resting on the worn orange bristles of a scrubbing brush neatly laid out beside a candle—details as acutely observed as those in his accomplished “Empty Beds” series from 2002.
Photo: Zwelethu Mthethwa: Untitled, from the series “The End of an Era,” 2011, chromogenic print, 59 by 76 inches; at iART.