In love with blackness

Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa has coined a

phrase to sum up black people in South Africa: “the new citizens”.


They

were

excluded from all the “benefits of full citizenship until very recently,

1994 to

be specific”, he explains.

We meet at Circa on Jellicoe in Rosebank, which is hosting his

­exhibition of photographs and pastel drawings.

On arrival, I find him crowded by admirers in the gallery’s lounge,

­sipping red wine on a sofa. “I only drink wine and single malt whiskey,” he

says.

Mthethwa explains that the work on

show continues his focus on ­“people who exist on the periphery of society.

It

has a strong football ­element and also speaks about green issues.”

The pastel Begging for More shows a boy seated on a chair with his

reclining mother. Through a window there’s a grey, lightning-filled sky over an

informal settlement.

Mthethwa says the tumultuous

sky is a comment on the ozone layer and air pollution.

­

The work reveals that the artist may be stronger with pastels than

­behind the camera.

His drawings seem richer in colour and imagination than his

photographs.

Mthethwa’s subjects, who exist in

abject ­poverty, are kept hopeful and resilient by the strength of his riotous

multicolour palette.

But the artist disagrees with my reading. “These are two different

­mediums,” he says, “and they ­demand different approaches.

“When I’m drawing, I rely more on my imagination, but in

photography, one works from the given and must then edit out.

When I’m drawing

or painting, I can put in things from everywhere – fantasy and reality can be

merged – which I can’t in my photos.”

Most noticeable in Mthethwa’s works

are his poor, black subjects. However, he argues that he is not romanticising

black poverty.

“It’s important that my subjects are proud of their own images

first,” he says.

He always sends them the ­images for approval.

“In fact,

because I’m the one who goes into their spaces, I have to deal with being

uncomfortable there. So I’m the stranger in their world.”

Mthethwa says that he is “in love with blackness” and

is merely recording history. “It’s time our stories are told by other black

people.”

» Is it our goal…? And other related issues, an exhibition by

Zwelethu Mthethwa, runs at Circa On Jellicoe in

Rosebank until the end of June


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