The politics of bling

2014-02-09 14:00

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An intriguing photo exhibition takes viewers into conspicuous consumer culture in townships, Percy Mabandu went to bear witness

Shrouded in engine smoke and drowned out by the rumpus of a revving car, art lovers stood gawking like the scandalised witnesses of some exotic drama in the Goethe On Main gallery at the Maboneng Precinct in downtown Joburg on Thursday night.

“OMG!” was the united response to the far-out ritual with which City Press photographer Muntu Vilakazi marked the opening of his debut exhibition. The crowd, used to wine and cheese at most other exhibition openings, was treated to beer and banter about all things ghetto fabulous.

The unusual way in which Vilakazi’s work occupied the atmosphere of the gallery mirrored the content of his photos. The body of pictures has been gathered under the title, The Politics of Bling: An East Rand Culture Quest.

They are images culled from the young lensman’s travels to Katlehong, Vosloorus and Kwa-Thema, townships in Ekurhuleni that pale in comparison with Jozi or Soweto’s hectic pace, glitz, glamour and nightlife.

The area’s underdevelopment, soaring youth unemployment figures, shack dwellings, crime and drug abuse issue a unique pulse of life. Its human vitality is palpable in Vilakazi’s images.

It finds expression in what he calls a prevalent “deep House music, motorbike and drag racing culture” that commands a significant following.

Here, the narratives of poverty are contrasted with hyperconsumerism to lend a problematic vignette to discussions of the nature of the new black middle class.

The set of pictures titled Donuts portrays this daring love for speed and stunts. Here, young people – described in party politics and media stereotypes as “the poorest of the poor” – produce their own Michael Schumachers.

This is where box-shaped BMW 325is – or the “Gusheshe”, as the car is popularly known – are spun into circles on the tarmac to draw shapes that give the game its name. The cloud of smoke that results from the burning tyres and engine emissions lends a ghostly quality to the whole affair.

Sharper shots give us the luxurious leather of designer shoes oozing with confidence as they rest on a rugged pavement crying out for repairs. They are joined on the asphalt by expensive alcohol to make for loaded contrasts.

It is Vilakazi’s eye for meaningful detail that gives the show its enchanting touch – the tattoo of a rose on a girl’s thigh or the envy and admiration in the eyes of children fenced out of the fun.

Other pieces on show, like Dlalisa #I, which loosely translates into “play”, depicts the hand of a young man pouring whisky into the hot air shooting from a superbike’s exhaust pipe. This to simply watch it dissipate into the air.

One wishes the images were printed larger and displayed in a less spacious and more forgiving hall.

Be that as it may, Vilakazi’s work speaks of a place where the consumerist prescription of “retail therapy” meets notions of lavish and sacrificial self-offering by the poor at the temple of bling.

The Politics of Bling: An East Rand Culture Quest is on at Goethe on Main, Joburg, until March 16

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