Given South Africa’s historical narrative, it is perhaps unsurprising that the country’s photography is generally marked by a strong documentary focus. Showing humans in distress is, however, a globally familiar photographic trope, one that has achieved a certain iconic immutability in the years following the invention of the camera. Looking at the work of Cape Town photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa, one is reminded how – in the manner of icon painters – documentary photographers reiterate and repeat history, rather than simply document it.
One of South Africa’s leading documentarians, whose work is regularly shown in galleries, Mthethwa first came to international prominence in the late 1990s for his colour studies of Cape Town shack-dwellers and their homesteads. What remains striking about these early images, which made up the overriding bulk of The Studio Museum’s spare and unconvincing survey exhibition, ‘Inner Views’, is the proud and stoic composure of Mthethwa’s subjects.
In an untitled portrait made in 2000 and displayed in a small side annexe, we see a pregnant woman reclining on a bed. Like the two other anonymously portrayed subjects from Mthethwa’s ‘Interiors’ series (2001) shown nearby, she is surrounded by visual evidence that both personalizes and socializes her – hanging from a peg on the wall, papered floor-to-ceiling with pages from a commercial leaflet, is a man’s suit. Yet it is the woman’s right hand, which cradles her swollen belly, and the resoluteness of her gaze that intrigues. Mthethwa is adept in teasing a proud certainty and personality from his subjects; it is a skill that counterbalances the calculatedly sociological remit of his photographs.
It bears noting that Mthethwa is not the first South African photographer to venture into the country’s blighted urban periphery in search of images of poverty, an insight that is allowed no agency in this contained showing. Photographers as ideologically distinct as Omar Badsha and Ronnie Leviton have made similar pictures, the former in black and white, the latter in colour. In interviews, Mthethwa has often linked his use of colour to an ethical imperative, recalling how, in 1987, as a Fulbright scholar at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, he got to work in a colour darkroom for the first time. ‘When I looked at my work that I shot before I went to the US, work I had started in 1984 already, I was shocked,’ he told me in 2004. ‘I was shocked that my work seemed to perpetuate the myth that poor people are miserable and down-and-out.’
Whether colour – or, for that matter, scale, a painterly take on composition and the inclination to call his subjects collaborators – necessarily marks Mthethwa’s practice as radically different, either from his local forebears or the work produced by the Farm Security Administration photographers in 1930s America, is debatable. His practice reiterates too many entrenched tropes to stand as truly distinctive, from the enforced anonymity of his subjects and narrative inviting composition to the liberal humanist politics his practice is founded on. Complemented by an underwhelming selection of the photographer’s still lifes, made in Cape Town and more recently in post-Katrina New Orleans, Mthethwa’s New York museum debut could have offered so much more.