Sabelo Mlangeni: At Home/Ghost Towns

Page 1


Home path, 2007



Ngaphesheya komfula, 2007


Kokhokho, 2004


Umalusi, 2006


Umsinyane, 2006


Tuckshop, Ngema, 2006


Nobuhle, 2008


Bus terminal, 2008

A stream, 2009



Hlanhla, 2006


Lindelani Vilakazi, 2007

Cebile, New Stand, 2006


Ngwane store, 2006


Unompopi, 2006



Unkomoziyophuza, 2007

Mkhize village, 2009


Corner store, 2006


Home revisit, weekend, 2008



Mthwalume I-IV, KZN, 2008


AmaJericoh, 2008


Nothando Dlamini, 2008


Noluthando, 2008

Lutheran Church, 2009



Msobotsheni, 2006


Tyres and hooves, 2006


Mkhuphula, 2006


Deli Nyandeni, 2006


Portrait of a family, Msibi, 2008


Omakoti, Msinga, 2006



Forgotten land, 2004



In the four years since he first exhibited Invisible Women, a subdued and humanist portrait of the broom-toting, working-class women who nightly bag the accumulated debris left by daytime traders in Johannesburg, Sabelo Mlangeni has devoted himself to essaying two very specific geographies, both of them a kind of home. The apparent contradiction in this last statement is not at all unusual. In the manner of countless men and women before him, economic migrants who travelled to Johannesburg in search of opportunity and betterment, in 2001 Mlangeni left Driefontein, his rural birthplace in southern Mpumalanga, for the big city. Situated on the upper reaches of South Africa’s vast eastern escarpment, close to Wakkerstroom, Amersfoort, Volksrust and Piet Retief, Driefontein and its neighbouring country towns and villages are central to Mlangeni’s larger photographic project. However, unlike his photographs of Johannesburg, characterised by nonjudgmental descriptions of very particular metropolitan locales — the newly paved avenues of Johannesburg’s CBD, the decrepit exteriors of the modernist flat blocks that line them, a men’s only labour hostel on the city’s East Rand — Mlangeni’s rural pictures survey a much larger and more elusive terrain, South Africa’s residual world, that vast outland beyond the cosmopolitan prospect.


Rather than settle into a bounded geographical somewhere, a Boksburg or a Beaufort West, for instance, Mlangeni has opted to collapse the small towns and villages dotted across the south-eastern highveld into one. So, Standerton blurs into Amersfoort, and the 100km distance between Ermelo and Piet Retief is erased. Ngema, near the Heyshope Dam, is folded into the dusty, stripped landscape at Jericho Dam, even though the two are separated by a 50km drive via Amsterdam along the R33 — or a good day’s walk for the area’s economically inactive residents, many of them child-minding elders. While it is fair to say that Mlangeni’s new photographic essays, Ghost Towns and At Home, are marked by a definite sense of placelessness, his essays are nonetheless, in their own way, uniquely located. A sequence of road numbers helps map the particular geographic remit of his new photographs. Let’s start at Standerton. Located 160km south-east of Johannesburg, on the northern banks of the Vaal River, the town is a busy minibus taxi route from Gauteng to southern Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal. The R23, briefly known as Dr Nelson Mandela Road in Standerton’s eastern suburb of Meyerville, follows the railway line south-east towards Volksrust, where this busy arterial road intersects with the N11. Mlangeni knows the route well: he uses it whenever he visits his mother in Driefontein, located 65km north-east of Volksrust on the R543 to Piet Retief. Named after a slain trekboer and farmer, Piet Retief in turn connects with Ermelo, the apex of the more or less rhombus-shaped terrain imaged in Ghost Towns and At Home, by way of the N2. Completing the missing boundary line in this top-down schematic is the R39, which links Ermelo to Standerton. Notably, Mlangeni’s photographs avoid panoptic overviews, offering instead the uncomplicated and partial street-views familiar to pedestrians and motorists. Pay attention to the quality of the tarred roads in Mlangeni’s photographs. The furrowed and potholed roads that connect the region’s ‘forgotten towns’, as the photographer describes them, make for arduous driving. In part, this is because of the many heavy-duty trucks that transport coal to the coal-fired electrical power stations in the area. More than a few of these chimneystacked monoliths are located at intervals along the N11, between Middelburg and Volksrust — they include Hendrina and Arnot north of Ermelo, Camden a short distance south, also Majuba, which is located between Volksrust and Amersfoort. Ghost Towns includes two photographs that mordantly offer comment on the region’s centrality to sustaining South Africa’s overburdened national electrical grid. Compressed into the abundance recorded in Mlangeni’s photograph N11 is a road sign indicating the way


to Ermelo and Volksrust; it leans against the two metal uprights that once elevated the sign more prominently at the T-junction. The dysfunction registered in this picture is more explicitly declared in Load shedding. Titled after the euphemistic engineering description for the power outages that have intermittently plunged various parts of the country into night, the photo shows a listing and functionless lamppost in front of an electrical substation, its mechanical parts enclosed by a concrete slab wall. Mlangeni’s street-view studies of outland South Africa also include brick walls, stuccoed walls, even tiled walls, his photo Piekwiek Dry recording a typical South African medley of built verticals — a tall, windowless brick wall looms over a smoke-blackened concrete rampart. Although now largely populated by black subjects, many seemingly in transit, these forgotten built environments are the product of white conquest. Extensively settled in the 1800s, albeit not without significant resistance by the indigenous population, as the fateful death of Piet Retief reminds, white settlers arriving in the former Transvaal staked their legal claims to land by riding half an hour on horseback in each of the four cardinal directions from a central point, typically a water source. The first settler homes were mudpacked wattle-and-daub structures, prompting Dingane kaSenzangakhona Zulu, leader of the Zulu kingdom until 1840, to compare the trekboers to swallows (inkonjane) because of their ephemeral mud homes. Stone and fired brick, the latter initially an expensive luxury, eventually came to assert the permanency of the settler population’s ambitions. But for architect Gerard Moerdijk’s grey sandstone church in Piet Retief, the dorps imaged in Mlangeni’s Ghost Towns essay claim few noteworthy architectural landmarks. The impoverished examples of Art Deco recorded in his photographs are just that, stunted — and in the case of the Welworths building appear to be assimilating into the region’s pervasive brick vernacular, the cement-grey and dusty brown hues of which are unknowable from Mlangeni’s black and white photos. One recent brick building particularly intrigues: the double-storey government office portrayed in Department of Labour. Similar to his 2006 photo of a Chinese goods wholesale store at 154 Market Street, a single light in an otherwise darkened building elegantly registering the punctum, the action in this new photo also happens upstairs. ‘Epilepsy’ reads a sign in the top left window. Mlangeni’s subtle and open-ended essays, which deploy impression and humour — see for example Decisive moment, its title and action jokingly pointing to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s wellknown 1932 photograph of a man leaping over a glassy puddle behind Gare St Lazare — can


and do capably function as standalone statements. Ghost Towns is principally concerned with recording the way in which the opportunities of universal franchise (including the freedom to live and work where one pleases) have ‘somehow skipped past these towns’. At Home, by distinction, describes the system of dependence and support that makes it necessary for many South Africans to claim two homes. The two projects, which both eschew system and exactitude, favouring the askew glance and snapshot-like view, are nonetheless in many ways connected, the formal, former white world of Ghost Towns a stark counterpoint to the sparse, undeveloped and occasionally exhausted landscapes portrayed in At Home. That Mlangeni prefers loose visual impressions (‘instinctive response’, Dorothea Lange called it) to systematic analysis brings to mind Santu Mofokeng, an accomplished essayist whose stated ambition early on was to offer ‘a richer and more nuanced appreciation of Soweto life’ — and by extension black South African life in general. In carrying the torch for a less didactic, more inquisitive and open-ended practice, Mlangeni’s understated essays, in particular At Home, occasionally reiterate (rather than merely quote) Mofokeng’s early work. Although principally a photo about the evacuation of labour from the rural areas to the big metropolitan cities, Mlangeni’s Bus terminal, with its hat-wearing figure on a bicycle, recalls Mofokeng’s 1985 street scene of a postman wearing a pith helmet steering his bicycle round a corner in Orlando East. Similarly, the battered old rural taxi in Unkomoziyophuza restates, without lapsing into cliché or formula, what Mofokeng observed on the dusty road between Botsobelo and Onverwagt in 1986. Productive dialogues both, and each suggestive of how, as Mlangeni capably puts it, ‘past and present scars’ have been ‘left unattended’.

Sean O’Toole is a journalist and writer based in Cape Town, and co-editor of CityScapes, a magazine that critically examines urban issues.

SOURCES Renfrew Christie, Electricity, Industry, and Class in South Africa. Albany: SUNY Press, 1985 Elize Labuschagne, ‘From Trekboer to Builder’, in Architecture of the Transvaal, edited by Roger C Fisher and Schalk le Roux. Pretoria: University of South Africa, 1988, pp 25-53 Santu Mofokeng, ‘A Letter from Johannesburg’, Das Bild Forum – Journées internationales de la photographie de Herten, 1993



Dutch Reformed Church, 2011



Victorian architecture, 2011



1939 Welworths, 2011

Idolobha langakithi, 2011



Intaba ebhaliwe, 2011


Volksrust town centre, 2011


‘No parking’, 2011


N11, 2011


Amersfoort Shell filling station, 2011


Department of Labour, 2011


Inkosi Yame cafe, 2011


Bus station, 2011


Half past 10am, 2011


‘We always cheap’, 2011


39 Carrington Str, 2011


Midtown hotel, 2011


Decisive moment, 2011


Hong Kong City, 2011


Dallas Drankwinkel, 2010


World of Hair, 2010


Impala House, 2011


Coming or going, 2011


Emthunzini, 2011


Mother and child selling fruit, 2011


Piekwiek Dry, 2011


Dr Nelson Mandela Weg, 2011


Mannequins, 2011


Empty world, 2011


Massey tractors, 2011


‘Bakers special’, 2011



Load shedding, 2009


Cosmos flowers, 2011





Afropolis: City, Media, Art, Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum,

Born 1980 in Driefontein; lives in

Cologne, Germany


Bonani Africa Photography Festival, Cape Town Boy Oh Boy, Fred Snitzer, Miami


After A: Photo Notes on South Africa,

At Home/Ghost Towns, Stevenson,

Atri Reportage Festival, Atri, Italy

Cape Town

This is Our Time, Michael Stevenson,

Men Only/At Home, Brodie/

Cape Town

Stevenson, Johannesburg

1910-2010: From Pierneef to

2007 Invisible Women, Warren Siebrits, Johannesburg

Gugulective, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town I am not afraid. The Market


Photo Workshop, Johannesburg,


Johannesburg Art Gallery

9th Rencontres de Bamako African Photography Biennial, Mali Lagos Photo Festival, Nigeria Appropriated Landscapes, Walther

2009 Summer 2009/10: Projects, Michael Stevenson, Cape Town 2005 Johannesburg Circa Now,

Collection, Neu-Ulm/Burlafingen,

Johannesburg Art Gallery,



A Space Between, Margate Photo

Gender and Visual Exhibitions,

Festival, Kent, UK Afropolis: City, Media, Art, Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany

District Six Museum, Cape Town 2004 Obsession, PhotoZA Gallery, Johannesburg 2003 Positive Pulse, Sun City, South Africa

Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection, Nasher Museum of


Art, Duke University, Durham, NC, US

2009 Tollman Award for Visual Arts

Possible Cities: Africa in Photography

2006-7 Edward Ruiz Mentorship Award,

and Video, Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery,

Market Photo Workshop

Haverford College, PA, US Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 F +27 (0)21 462 1501 JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 326 0034/41 F +27 (0)86 275 1918 Catalogue 59 October 2011 Cover Victorian architecture, 2011 Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town

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