‘People they always tell negative stories about Africa.” “When I understood the political set up. I made it my conviction to go out there through my art and try to paint a different picture of the other”. Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa is concerned with documenting the history of people on the fringe of society, especially those categorised as “the other”. His large-scale photographs display a side of Africa that is mundane yet beautiful. What’s instantly noticeable in his photographs is his use of colour, preferring to photograph his subjects in colour rather than black and white to give a dynamic and context to those being portrayed. His portraits of migrant workers also focus on challenging our perception of what is different, and particularly, how we look at the poorer members of our society. He talks to Nosmot Gbadamosi about the future of photography in Africa.
What do you hope to show to outsiders about South Africa through your photography?
It’s showing them a different perspective. For example when you look at people that are poor. If you shoot them in black and white, you are not doing them any favour. You are making the situation worse; they will feel very morbid because it is the nature of black and white photography. But when you start shooting in colour you see their houses and how they are trying to make their houses a home. A lot of colours are being used to try and dignify their home so that’s a different perspective. You don’t need to be rich to make your house become a home, to become warm.
Your work is often referred to as showing Africa in a dignified way?
In Durban where I come from, the set up was but you’re different and I remember as a kid we will be playing on the streets and these group of men will walk down the street and the first thing that you will hear is all the dogs barking.
The dogs will bark and they’ll bring us to the attention that there is somebody coming and we’ll look and there’ll be a group of men that will be dressed, as a kid, they’ll be dressed funny, because they didn’t dress like us. And they talked funny because although they spoke the same language it was a dialect and they were always in a group. So for me it was the other and I was very curious of the other. And I never really understood the whole political set up. So when I understood the political set up, I made it my conviction to go out there through my art and try to paint a different picture of the other. And that’s why people may say I portray them differently because I really tried to understand them and I tried to put them in a positive light. You know when we look at Africa, people, they always tell negative stories. And there’s so many positive stories that we have. I believe that in all communities there’ll be negative and positive areas in the way that you look at the stories of any community. So I’ve taken it upon me to change or provoke and ask questions that will tell a different story about Africa. About me, cause essentially this is about me.
Why is it important for you to shoot beautiful photographs?
Visually, it’s all about seduction. If you want people to look at what you do, you’ve got to seduce them; you’ve got to grab their attention. It’s one of the strategies that I employ to make people look at the work, because in most cases you find that as an artist when you do work, people don’t really have time to look at images. We’re bombarded with zillions of images so you’ve got to come up with a strategy to captivate, to make people look. So when I do beautiful pictures, it makes people look. And then they’ll spend more time digesting what is in the composition, what is in the image and by spending more time, then they will ask the right questions and they will find the right answers. And then they will end up understanding what I’m trying to do.
If we’re talking about documenting South Africa’s contemporary history, how do you go about choosing your subjects?
I go about looking at what impacts on the people in terms of culture, in terms of routes, I always study the community that is around me. I look at what has changed and what hasn’t changed. For example I’m meaning to document most of the hostels in Johannesburg and I can now say that I have a document, which is very artistic, about contemporary hostel life. Some of the things that really shocked me was they will have primer tools that you use for paraffin and you pump it, they changed them and they connected them to electricity so they became some new scientific gadget. Its amazing because these guys, most of them, they don’t even have matric [high school education], but they are able to convert this old gadget into something new. And when you look at those pictures they are very beautiful but they are records of what has changed and how people have tried to adapt. There is an idea that people that didn’t go to school they are dumb, they don’t know what’s best for them, but if you look at the pictures, you can see that these guys are thinkers. Although they didn’t go to school they are scientists and you know that there is this quest in them to make life better. They are not sitting on their behind saying that oh the government will do this.
What do you think is the most important problem facing artists in South Africa at the moment?
In Africa nobody buys our work because there is very few people that invest in art. People they buy big machines, big houses, they buy big cars you know and that’s it. So for me I’m not even coming to art education because there is no art education in Africa. And when you don’t have art education, it means that nobody hands over the baton to the next generation. Even as a kid when they grow up they know nothing about art. So there are doctors, engineers but they know nothing about art. If you look at for example kids in Europe they go to museums all the time so it does not matter what you grow up to be, but you know this is a Picasso, we don’t have that, now when those kids grow up they don’t invest in art because they don’t know what art means. It’s very important in Africa that we invest in art education. […] Get a doctor who understands art they will treat people very differently. The patient will be treated very differently
How would you like to see the future of photography in Africa going?
I think it is improving, because, I think the key is we have to break down the boundaries of where we expose our art. Right now, most of the artists that make it are artists that show overseas. But I think that we as artists we’ve got to cultivate communities within our countries that will support us. It’s a process but it is happening. […] Already in Ghana, in Nigeria, there are black collectors which is a new thing, in South Africa there are a few black collectors, it is real great, but those black collectors now have kids, they have families, now when their kids grow up, they grow up with art. So those kids they will end up collecting art.
You were recently in Mozambique; will you be doing a project there?
There is a new project that I’m doing in Mozambique, it started in Mozambique and I will do it in Durban and I will do it in Cape Town as well. Cape town in my eyes is the best-run city in South Africa but within Cape Town you will find, I call those guys the invincible nomads or the invincible ghosts. People that are unemployed and don’t have homes, you’ll find them wandering around the city. They will build a cardboard makeshift home where they sleep and in the morning they go around looking for jobs. Some of these guys often come from Maputo from Mozambique, neighbouring South African states. And some of them they’ve got high school education. But they come to work because South Africa is like your America; it’s the land of hope and dreams. And then I went to Mozambique, and Mozambique is a new city in Africa that is developing very fast and I saw a lot of these people, and that’s when I started taking images and making records of these people around the city and I’m throwing questions out there, why is it we pretend these people don’t exist? When we look at them, they are not there, but they are part of us. So that’s the project I’ve been doing in Mozambique. And I’ll carry that project in Durban and Cape Town because they exist in all the cities.
So you are looking at people on the outskirts who aren’t getting a chance to develop with the cities?
I’m asking a question why are these people not part of the development, for me it’s one of the failures of urbanisation so in respect, this is thrown back to politicians, how can we make sure that when we develop, we develop holistically and don’t leave anybody out? I think that sometimes artists they don’t have the answers but for me as an artist, we can probe and ask questions.
Zwelethu Mthethwa will be exhibiting at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland on the 25th of October 2012. He is represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. You can see his photographs here
All photographs courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York