Zwelethu Mthethwa at Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC

Zwelethu Mthethwa at Jack Shainman Gallery
Zwelethu Mthethwa at Jack Shainman Gallery

Zwelethu Mthethwa at Jack Shainman Gallery captured my attention with color and composition and maintained it with the interesting subject matter.  The Gallery’s large walls and open space emphasizes the depth of the material and the images’ visual voluptuousness. I found this exhibition particularly moving and to have a lasting impression on me because of its diversity of projects; its’ capacity to relocate the viewer; and challenge my own conceptions of people, places, and traditions.

I was immediately thrust into a world where I felt displaced, but then spotlighted and exposed.  The portraits authorized my presence amongst the civilized, the sanctified, and the beautiful living on the fringes of society.  Everyday life is caught in an extended glimpse and made available to a multitude of perspectives.  My visual index allowed me to recognize the rolling hills as the Kwazulu-Natal region of South Africa, the printed skirts as traditional “makoti”, and the fur sandals of the Zulu tradition from a man selling them behind the Khayelitsha Mall, but who knows if this is accurate because the images bear no labels.

These portraits are parts of three different projects.  The first space exhibits The Brave Ones. In this project, Mthethwa was interested in the role of uniform in the construction and expression of male identity. Young males wearing skirts with dress shirts, long socks, neckties, headwear, and black shoes are photographed outdoors in lush green vibrant fields.   He relies on a narrow visual index and understanding of elements to create a conflict in reading the images. While, the rolling hills in the background are common to ideas of African landscape. This work forced me to face my own stereotypes and work through them by educating myself. Later, I discovered these young men are members of a religious sect that have adopted these uniforms during a period of European colonization.apes, Black bodies in kilts in the foreground are not. Ideas about sexuality attached to posture and dress behavior in the U.S, where this exhibition takes place, evokes ideas of homosexuality, yet kilts emphasize masculinity in the Scottish tradition.


The Hope Chest series tells stories of ownership, identity, patriarchy, and concessions made by woman in today’s society.   Women are photographed with their chest of belongings. In different parts of Africa, traditionally the woman is fully absorbed into the family of her husband.  After marriage, she maintains very little, if any, identity and relation to her birth family.  All of what she owns fits in her hope chest.  She is given a new first name in addition to adopting the surname of her husband, completely surrendering her social identity. As this new identity is assumed old ties are completely severed and solidified with a libola offering.  The libola is a brideprice negotiated between both families prior to the marriage.  These traditions have become more laxed in more recent years, but still remains heavily practiced throughout South Africa.  The age of the women in these images raise questions about younger women and their participation in this practice.  What is the relationship between the libola and The Hope Chest?  Are they practiced in conjunction with each other and in which communities are they more or less prevalent?


From remnants of the past we go into remnants of the present with The End of An Era.  These compositions are portraits of migrant workers who have or are traveling to urbanized cities in search of work and better wages.  Their domestic space removed of the subject is captured to articulate socio-politico conditions in juxtaposition with intimate spaces.  As in Domestic Fashion by Shady P., we find elements of moral and

IMG_1513spsocial consciousness, faith, creativity, and western influence are prominent in South African Township shanty.   These spaces are representative and as telling of the people that inhabit them.    

This show celebrates life and culture in a very vivid way.   If you wish to experience a change in perspective while remaining right at home, please walk down 20th street, up the stairs and into the doors of a brick building, Jack Shainman Gallery.  The show runs until February 23.  Visit for details.

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