South African Photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa

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Legendary South African Photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa recently completed a solo exhibition at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery last month. Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, the photographer has been concerned with documenting the history of people on the fringe of society, especially those categorised as “the other”.

I talked to him via Skype during his stay in Mozambique last summer to discuss Africa’s modern urban society and the need for art education.
“Despite economic hardship, and political hardship, including that of just trying to fit in, people continue to work and live even in the strangest circumstances,” says Mr Mthethwa.

How do you choose what topics to document and capture through your photography?
I always try to look at things that are contemporary. I shall give you an example. In Cape Town, in the informal settlements, at the beginning there was no electricity so people would steal electricity from the neighbourhood where there was electricity. So there’ll be a lot of lines that were informal electricity lines, now that has changed because the government has been through a process where they installed electricity to informal settlements, but I have the record of the time when people didn’t have electricity. So I go about looking at what impacts on the people in terms of culture, in terms of roots, 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.

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You are currently 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, and 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.

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.

What do you think are some of the problems facing digital artists in Africa?
The thing with digital art is that it’s on computers so you are talking about electricity. What if you live in a village and there is no electricity. If we don’t have the infrastructure it will take us ages to catch up with our counterparts.
People they don’t understand Africa. Where I am now people they walk two hours to get to a clinic. So if you are a pregnant woman you are walking maybe once in two weeks, once a month, it’s a long walk. Africa is a very different terrain, people they don’t understand that. They don’t understand our problem, we’ve been left behind, in the cities its different but most of Africa is rural.
In Lagos at any market, they can change your dollar they can change your euro, they can change your pounds, it’s easy but in the rural areas it’s very different.

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.

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Zwelethu Mthethwa is represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. You can see his photographs here http://www.jackshainman.com/artist-images30.html All photographs courtesy of the artist and/or Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
This is an edited transcript of an interview I wrote for the African Digital Art network, answers to questions have not been written up chronologically. To read the full feature please click to African Digital Art.
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