Photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa on the uniqueness of South African culture

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For the first time on the continent of Africa, new photographic works will be exhibited by Zwelethu Mthethwa, one of South Africa’s most influential contemporary artists. The exhibition, showing at the iArt Gallery in Cape Town until 29 June, comprises a selection of photographs from the series The Brave Ones and The End of an Era. Zwelethu explains to Steyn du Toit the significance of both series, as well as the current worldwide interest in photography dealing with South African life.

Works on display were previously featured in two other photo series: The Brave Ones en The End of an Era. What is the focus of each series and why the particular series name?

The Brave Ones refers to a community that dares to be different, in that they present themselves differently. The series is about identity and how we form identities. The young men wear Scottish clothes, bow ties (which are associated with dinner or evening wear), feminine blouses, sports shorts, and men’s shoes or boots. These items come from various cultures, but are now transformed into something new as they lose their previous meaning through this synthesis. This series also touches on gender. There are different tones or shades of gender, different aspects. “Gender” as a defining description is not conclusive. The Brave Ones is about how people fit into their differing landscapes in both the current and a historical context.

The End of An Era is a series of photographs taken in hostels in Johannesburg. The hostels house the men that supply the City of Johannesburg with cheap labour. They are mostly men from rural areas or even from our neighbouring countries such as Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique for example. Instead of focusing on the spectacle and hardships often faced, I chose to focus on the way they make their private spaces comfortable. I try to focus on the positive side of things.

I looked at still lifes that helped to define the individuals that are behind the arrangements. The work in this series also covers the grooming rituals through the examination of these still lifes and the elements of grooming – the brushes, combs and mirrors that are present. I looked at the cooking utensils – like the way a primus stove, which uses paraffin, has been converted into an electrical appliance, which demonstrate how technology is used to make their lives comfortable. The title highlights how these hostels are coming to an end. New buildings are being made, more comfortable homes, and better living conditions.

“Untitled” from The End of Era series, by Zwelethu Mthethwa

What was your approach when shooting the images in The End of an Era? Did the subjects know you were photographing their possessions and arrange them accordingly, or did you photograph whatever you found as is?

With both projects I spent a lot of time following up and doing research. I have been working on these projects for about four years now. The still lifes were never tampered with - I found them as they were. All I could do is move around them until I was satisfied with the composition and quality of the light. This is all part of the editing process. When one chooses an angle and how the light falls – this is all part of editing, all part of photography. I also always used the available natural light – no artificial lighting was used.

“Untitled” from The Brave Ones series by Zwelethu Mthethwa

It is said that you have a very distinctive way of portraying black South Africans as opposed to the conventional Western way of doing it. Do you agree with this and what does this statement mean - could you maybe give an example?

I spent years and years researching and understanding my subject matter. I try to focus on the positive and avoid the spectacle. There is enough negativity. And I just can’t deal with that. It is very important to me, in terms of aesthetics, to portray something that is beautiful. The colours in the series are as I found them - I have not enhanced the colour in any of the photographs. I cannot give an example.

How popular is photography depicting South African life in general in galleries / art exhibitions worldwide at the moment?

There is really not a lot to be found worldwide. There are a handful of photographers in South Africa that show their photographic work in the world. The few South African photographers that do, have made a huge impact on major exhibitions around the world. For example, some have been collected by the Getty Museum and MoMA in New York.

“Untitled” from The End of Era series, by Zwelethu Mthethwa

Zwelethu Mthethwa: New Works runs at the iArt Gallery until 29 June. For more information, visit

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