/ 10 February 2012

Vanity, pride and prejudice


Having attended most exhibitions on the opening night — among badly dressed intellectuals and “gallerinas” downing dodgy wine to lubricate their small talk — it was ­refreshing to visit the Stevenson gallery in ­Braamfontein on a random Thursday afternoon when nobody was there.

It was just me in a quiet room with the people in the black-and-white ­pictures on the wall. I had not heard of Sabelo Mlangeni before seeing his latest ­exhibition and did not have any expectations about his work. But thankfully there is something ­sobering about ­observing artworks as they are presented, ­without influence from outside ­elements.

The exhibition is titled Men in Dress and Iimbali, hinting at its duality — it is in fact made up of two entities. The first collection presents photographs of camp gay men, photographed at pride marches in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and in Soweto. These evoke no particular ­emotional response in the viewer; they are what they are.

We live in a world oversaturated with street fashion blogs that capture people parading their vanity at the expense of their vulnerability. One thing that separates Mlangeni’s photographs from images that dot the digital world is that they are in black and white and presented in white frames against a white wall in a reputable gallery. It is this aspect that provokes thought. Their placement in an artistic environment, in an ­atmosphere of solitude, forced me to look for a point of interest.

Circumstantial detail

I found that this point does not ­simply arise from the fact of the homosexual male figure dressed in women’s clothing. That is not a ­novelty in urban Johannesburg. What piqued my interest was the circumstantial detail, which was almost accidental in its ­appropriateness.

Here were men dressed in skimpy tops and dresses. One exposed his briefs bearing the logo of a rather common fashion boutique chain, Identity. I wondered whether these individuals, as consumers, had merely bought their garments at their favourite shops, or was there, in their donning of them, any ­intentional ­interrogation of the idea of gender identity?

The faces of the men tell stories of pride above prejudice. There are looks of innocence and vulnerability. ­Others seem to invite judgment.

The theme of vanity among people who are economically and politically marginalised is what ties Iimbali, the other photographic series of Swazi reed dance participants, to the men in their dresses.

In this series I found that the ­juxtaposition of contradictions gave value to the photographs.

Here were young girls in a traditional setting, in ­traditional garb, breasts exposed, smiling and ready to participate in tradition. Simultaneously, and ­possibly quite subliminally, they exposed something about what it is they are desperately seeking (in this instance, cultural and social approval and perhaps even marriage) in the form of ill-fitting sunglasses, fake pearls, manicured and polished nails — all this while holding spears and a flag with the Swazi king’s face.

Again, vanity and pride above prejudice are expressed in the faces and sartorial choices of the subjects. ­Mlangeni has succeeded in visually exploring a complex subject without looking as though he set out to do so.

Although there is a sense that these are stories that have been told before, there is also a sense of quietness and subtlety in Mlangeni’s images that help us to understand who these ­people really are.

The exhibition runs at the Stevenson gallery, 62 Juta Street, Braamfontein, until February 24. Tel: 011 326 0034