Comments/Context: Zwelethu Mthethwa's newest show of portraits certainly ranks among the best work he has produced in his already successful career. In three separate projects, the South African photographer probes the subtleties and depths of personal identity, via the unlikely costumes of members of the Nazareth Baptist Church, the battered hope chests of elderly women, and the hostel room furnishings of anonymous migrant workers. The pictures tell rich stories of the past, the present, and an aspirational future, consistently bursting with thick, astonishing color.
Making the choice to reject your traditional Zulu heritage and join an insurgent Christian church is likely a hard one for any young man. But to do so and then proudly wear the hybrid British/Scottish garb of kilts and bow ties, knee socks and puffy yarn head pieces is enough to test anyone's resolve, especially in a culture with such strong definitions of masculinity. No wonder Mthethwa called these sitters The Brave Ones. Posing in the verdant green of the bush under solitary shade trees, young men stand with languorous defiance, in pith helmets and green ribbons or sporting red checked skirts and starched white shirts. It's a smart inversion of the stereotypical tribal pose, capturing an unexpected willingness (or need) to break from the crowd.
Mthethwa's portraits of women with their hope chests are even more confident and powerful. Weathered women who have seen it all pose with their chests, often resting on them or guarding them with reverent attention. The wooden boxes are heavy and solid, filled with treasures and possessions reaching back to the hopeful time before the woman was married. Many miles have clearly passed since then for all of the subjects, but even though times have changed, the chests have lost none of their traditional importance. One woman in a shiny orange and black dress sits atop her chest flanked by her matching tractor, while another wearing a bright red hat with silver rivets waits primly alongside hers under a blue umbrella. The dusty red earth tries to swallow up one woman's padlocked chest, and a jumbled pile of luggage and blankets threatens that of another. Interior wall colors throb with bold intensity, the sparse painted rooms often organized with the chests as their centerpiece furnishing. The simple image of a woman in a pink headscarf sitting in a green plastic chair before her chest, drenched in a flood of peach light, is at once penetratingly poignant and quietly breathtaking.
Mthethwa's third project, The End of an Era, reprises his earlier images of empty interiors, allowing the details of a tidy room to tell its inhabitant's story. Here one room is covered edge to edge in World Cup team shots and soccer cutouts from newspapers, while another is a study in the contrasting patterns of a blanket, a wooden divider, and a painted wall. Others focus down on specific objects: the orderliness of a set of combs and toiletries (the soap delicately paced and a shard of mirror carefully centered on the table) or the solitary candle on a makeshift bedside table. The pictures are clear evidence that even in the humblest of conditions, people find ways to make a place personal, leaving behind traces of themselves.
More generally, I think this show cements Mthethwa's position as one of the important innovators in contemporary photographic portraiture. He has a brilliant sense for how clothing, objects and environments are representative of a sitter's most strongly held beliefs, and how the subtle interaction between them can reveal something that would otherwise be hidden.
Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced based on size and series. Prints from The Brave Ones are either $26000 or $18000, those from Hope Chest are either $28000 or $18000, and the ones from The End of an Era are either $26000 or $18000. Mthethwa's work has become more available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $28000.
Zwelethu Mthethwa, New Works
Jack Shainman Gallery
New York, NY 10011