‘Umlindelo’ captures the insider’s view from without

The believers: Nhlapho, Mama Thebu, Ndlovu, Sweetmama, KwaMabunda, Fernie (2009)

The believers: Nhlapho, Mama Thebu, Ndlovu, Sweetmama, KwaMabunda, Fernie (2009)

A rectangular piece of cobalt blue fabric graces the entrance. On it, straight white lines form a star — the fabric introduces us to the work. Singing is heard — a church service, worship.

Sabelo Mlangeni pushes against the spectacular with his solo exhibition, Umlindelo wa Makholwa (The Night Vigil of the Believers) at the Wits Arts Museum. This photographic series is a lyrical essay about two Zionist churches in Southern Africa, with a particular focus on Johannesburg and Driefontein.

Umlindelo wa Makholwa, a collaboration with independent curator Kabelo Malatsie and Cambridge University lecturer Dr Joel Cabrita, whose research is on the history of Christianity in Southern Africa, is not a series of images about religion, although it is born of religion. The body of work, shot from 1997 to this year, contains more than 50 photographs and a video installation, each suggesting more than it reveals, and each with a language of its own.

Born and raised in Driefontein in Mpumalanga, Mlangeni graduated from the Market Photo Workshop (founded by David Goldblatt who died recently) in 2004. Mlangeni’s career has seen him realising solo projects and group exhibitions, including Kholwa: The Longing of Belonging, which showed at the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Cambridge last year.

Umlindelo wa Makholwa is a reincarnation of this exhibition, with Mlangeni again collaborating with Cabrita. The photographer’s other notable exhibitions include Heartbreaker at artSPACE in Auckland, New Zealand (in 2016), and About Whose Land Have I Lit on Now? at Savvy Contemporary in Berlin (in 2018).

Mlangeni’s way of approaching photography allows him to move away from the perfect and pristine, the unspoilt and the immaculate, to the world of shadow, blur, overexposure and interesting angles. Sometimes, his images are interesting because of their everydayness and banality. He prods at the uncomfortable and requires that we examine how we view and read images; that we question our ways of seeing.

Umlindelo wa Makholwa is large, both in its scope and quantity of photographs, and yet it remains intimate. The intimacy of the images is further elevated by Mlangeni’s choice of titles for the works, such as Khensani, Sarah, Ntombi and Phindile (2017), uGogo ka Mzwandile, KwaMaseko eShabalala Driefontein (2017), Lungile no Mama Hlatshwayo (2016), beckoning and paying respect to elders and to the past, the present and the emerging.

Part of the success of the show is that the message is not obvious and resists easy labelling. Is it a document of the spread and reach of the Zionist Church community in Southern Africa? Is it an archive? Is it journalistic?

In this way, Mlangeni immerses himself in this community, both as an insider and an outsider, both a messenger and an intermediary, allowing us to see the community through his eyes — a sympathetic, and empathetic invitation to see through his lens.

The show is also filled with beautiful moments of fragility. We see a portrait of the late Sweetmama Mathebula taken in 2007, in whichshe stares intently into the lens, her face as powerful and alluring as the textured wall behind her, whichcomplements the image. Some images are flat and show only what needs to be shown, whereas others are expansive, woven, full and fleeting.

In Isiprofetho (2008), a woman walks away from the beach towards trees. The image is textured, foretelling and expressive. A purposeful production of what is to be seen.

In some cases, (such as in In Time, A Morning after Umlindelo, 2016, and KwaMaseko e Shabalala, 2017), the merciless character of light leaves us with sharp images; contorted, deformed but their interior exposed and fully beautiful.

True to his photographic style, Mlangeni uses black-and-white photography in Umlindelo wa Makholwa to explore his religious journey. He embraces darkness and illumination. By photographing his community, he is implicated, rendering the work as part performance and part personal essay.

Through this series, he continues to explore notions of belonging and longing, identification and objectification, and separation and inclusion through memory and time.

More than anything, these images leave us in waiting, while inviting us in both new and old worlds.

The Wits Arts Museum will host a talkabout with Mlangeni andMalatsie on Saturday July 28 at midday

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