Mythology interrupted

If one gives in to the uncanny impression that the men in Zwelethu Mthethwa’s new series of photographs are waiting for something or someone, one sets in motion a whole train of problems.

The stark simplicity of the Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan no doubt contributes to this initial feeling, since its silence and white walls encompass a world that is as far-removed as any world can be from the landscape and history of the sugar cane workers.

They are workers, after all, and the photographer, Mthethwa and I agree in discussion, is not so much an intruder as an interrupter.

The photographer has his own great game to play with time because, as Roland Barthes observes, he gives us, in his photographs of the living, a glimpse of death. But here is Mthethwa interrupting work, quite literally taking up time.

Unlike many of Mthethwa’s other subjects who he has, until now, photographed in their homes or other interiors, these men are caught in their working garb between lines of sugar cane, against the backdrop of the rolling hills of northern KwaZulu-Natal.

They have no time to negotiate appointments or dress up to be photographed. They, and the man taking their pictures, are snatching moments between bursts of intense, back-breaking work. No, they are certainly not waiting.

In Lines of Negotiation, Mthethwa opens up the questions that plague the photographer who chooses as his or her subject the person engaged in hard, physical labour.

Even when not at work, Walker Evans discovered, the labourer-as-subject poses problems. There is always that overused word “dignity” to fall back upon in describing the pride, physical presence, and tiredness of the worker, as if the photograph, or our looking at it, were able to confer this quality on the subject.

But this series, Mthethwa tells me, has very little to do with dignity. There is also the danger of mythologising labour, or, worse, aestheticising drudgery. The latter is part of a debate that will go on for some time, but the notion of a mythology of labour is what Mthethwa deliberately interrupts.

Sugar cane harvesting is closer to forms of industrial labour than it is to most agricultural work because of the harshness of the working environment.

The scarred, blackened fields testify to the violence being done to the earth in this kind of farming. Cane must be burnt and then sliced with a machete, and the fields treated with a chemical so noxious that the workers employ all kinds of evasive tactics to keep from inhaling or coming into contact with the poison.

They wear several layers of clothing, despite the heat, to protect themselves from the viciously sharp leaves, the machetes, and the cut cane. The hands of the cane workers, Mthethwa points out to me, are heavily scarred and lacerated, and their faces and exposed arms are blackened by soot.

And then there are the snakes and other denizens of the cane fields against which the workers close the tops of their boots by lacing their trousers tightly to their legs.

The cane fields are an agricultural war zone, situated at the nexus of the most pressing political, social and environmental problems facing South Africa.

The field workers are doing the same work they have always done in this war, even though the farms have changed hands.

But then, these men have attitude, which, in street speak, is a word that suggests to me both defiance and celebration. Some of them, one might say, even swagger. One young man stands with arms crossed and legs parted, weight slightly back on the heels. He has given himself to the photographer’s time, but he is a slippery customer, playful, distant, brash and, for a moment, elsewhere.

By contrast, an older man in another photograph has none of this defiance. In this shot, the machete is not a weapon but a counterbalance to the kierie in the man’s left hand. The gaze is steady, the stance set, but there is resignation in his bearing.

Mthethwa has created three distinct compositional layers here: the soot-blackened man in the foreground; a row of partly burnt cane some metres behind him; and, behind the cane, a rolling horizon of terraced fields.

The man’s stance and his placement in the centre of the shot make him almost proprietorial, his red-scarfed head giving him a royal look. Except that there is intense weariness in his face. He dominates the scene in the momentary space of the camera’s opening and closing eye, but outside of that moment, he is ground down by work.

In the most enigmatic photograph in the series, Mthethwa shoots his subject from slightly lower than usual. One has the impression that the man, his face half obscured by late-afternoon shadow, his hood pulled up over his head, is looking at the viewer with contempt.

Leaning slightly to the left on his machete, his boots and his laced trousers blackened from soot, he looks like a medieval hangman rising out of the ground. Only the top right half of his torso and head catch the light, one eye visible. He is menacing and defiant, his body containing all of the tension of his relationship to the photographer and to the burning landscape around him.

Mthethwa laughs when I ask about this picture. “I can laugh,” he tells me, “because I know what was going on in that picture.” He doesn’t elaborate.

Mthethwa relishes his subjects’ participation in the photographic act, but he instinctively stands away from the men.

In every photograph he preserves the distance that they seem to have thrown down between themselves and the viewer.

He has also not imposed on them the laboriousness of a tripod but instead hand-holds his heavy, medium-format camera.

What we see, then, is a mix of the fixedness that a posed portrait inevitably generates and a blurred indefiniteness, from camera shake and partly from the haze created by bright bright sunlight or late afternoon shadow.

The men are rooted to the spot. They have ceased working to have their portraits taken, but any fixity of gaze, posture or setting is undercut by Mthethwa’s working method and his careful framing of the subjects against the dancing, burning sugar cane.

Mthethwa confesses that he was surprised to be reminded of the differences between himself and the workers.

He spent several months at a few farms in order to get to know and be familiar to the people he wanted to photograph.

He did not want to be an intruder and assumed that since he was from Durban and was a black photographer, they would see him as one of them. By politely refusing to eat with him, they conveyed their awareness of the class difference between them, shifting the political and social ground in which his photographs would inevitably be embedded.

In contemporary South Africa, perhaps the most difficult lines of negotiation are in the relation of workers to land and to landowners. Mthethwa chose this title for his series because sugar cane is cut in straight lines, the workers placed along the rows and moving steadily forward with their machetes. But he never shows us these men at work. He has chosen, instead, to halt the swing of the machete for the moment of the photograph, as if doing so will somehow drive a wedge into history.

Zwelethu Mthethwa’s exhibition, Lines of Negotiation, is at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, until April 17

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