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The Portfolio: Siyabonga Mahlaba

My interest in buildings was inspired by my late former brother-in-law who was an architectural technologist. I’d watch him draw and he’d sometimes take me along to work and show me some of the buildings in Gauteng he had helped design. This appreciation for architecture ties to my current practice as an artist and photographer. 

The focus on church buildings stems from my upbringing at the Dutch Reformed Church in my hometown and my personal enquiries about the Christian faith. During my studies in fine arts, I developed an interest in photography, through which I started documenting the Dutch Reformed buildings in Bethlehem, a photographic series I titled Reformed Structures

I discovered that the Dutch Reformed Church is a predominantly Afrikaner church whose history is rooted in colonialism and which is infamous for supporting the apartheid regime, as well as perpetuating racial segregation within its walls. This was a history I was not  aware of, and it disrupted my perception of churches as places of worship.

Bethlehem has thirteen Dutch Reformed Churches: two for black congregants, one for coloured congregants, and ten for white congregants. The structures for the white congregants are of a higher standard than those housing black and coloured congregants. 

This also shifted my perception of architectural structures as merely buildings. Their structural and aesthetic designs are loaded with ideology.

These intricacies forced me to reflect on my identity and the ambivalence of being a black congregant in a historically white church. My photography explores and represents the architectural disparities in these buildings, and their implications for establishing standards for life through racial hierarchies. Furthermore, it raises questions around how Christianity is at odds with itself, how racism is perpetuated and condemned in its name.

This project involves experimentation. I change the types of cameras and lenses I shoot with and the ways in which I edit my images. My post-production process involves colour grading and editing, which often  includes digital collaging and photographic manipulation, depending on how I feel about the end product or the message I’m aiming to convey.  

I always carry two cameras when shooting, one digital and one analogue. Switching to analogue is always arbitrary, and although not my usual camera of choice, it always offers an interesting contrast. Images I shoot digitally usually show the geometry and details in the church space, while an image such as Glo Net, which I shot in analogue, is more suggestive in its details. The grain from the film is an aspect of analogue photography I enjoy, which is why I enhanced it in post-production editing for this particular image. 

Glo Net didn’t undergo digital collaging or photographic manipulation, as I felt it was powerful on its own. From a distance, it’s not apparent that the image is depicting a  church, until its eeriness and darkness pull you in and you see the light on the pews and the writing on the tapestry, translating to “just believe”.

Mahlaba graduated with a BA in fine arts at Wits University in 2020.  He is currently studying architecture at Wits University. For more of his work visit @sabu_mahlaba on Instagram

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Siya Mahlaba
Mahlaba graduated with a BA in fine arts at Wits University in 2020. He is currently studying architecture at Wits University. For more of his work visit @sabu_mahlaba on Instagram

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