Sabelo Mlangeni: Country Girls

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Piet Retief, 2009


Glamour and grittiness combine in Sabelo Mlangeni’s Country Girls series, an intimate portrait of gay life in the South African countryside. The photographs were taken in small towns and rural areas in the Mpumalanga province: Driefontein, Ermelo, Bethal, Platrand, Piet Retief, Standerton and Secunda – nodes of mining, agriculture, forestry and coal-fed power stations. These are bleak environments where township life is rough and poor. But there is also glamour here. Country Girls vividly demonstrates that fashion and gay life go hand-in-hand in the countryside. In fact it is not uncommon to hear of gay lifestyles referred to, with some disapproval, as ‘a fashion’, a modern phenomenon. To some, gays are seen as un-African, un-Christian or the unfortunate by-product of a liberal constitution. But, as Mlangeni’s evocative photographs show, this is only a small part of the story. Narratives of gay community formation are almost invariably city-based and tell a familiar story: the relative anonymity of city life, the loosening of family and kinship bonds and the wage-labour economy free individuals to follow their personal desires and to explore more varied erotic lives. Mlangeni’s work shows that gays have also carved spaces for themselves in the countryside – in seemingly unlikely places where they work, play, love and create community. One of Mlangeni’s photographs shows human hair strewn on the floor of a salon belonging to a successful stylist, Nkululeko, in Thandukukhanya township, Piet Retief. Hairstyling is a niche profession for gays in the region. And in this line of work a close association with fashion is an advantage. It is a highly competitive informal industry and gays do well, some rising to the status of local celebrities. Hair and identity are closely linked – evident, for example, in the plethora of new black hairstyles and the burgeoning black hair product industry in the wake of South Africa’s transition to democracy. New forms of black self-fashioning evoke a proud and strongly African identity, and gays are at the forefront of this fashion explosion, deftly producing African styles for their loyal clients. In the stylist’s chair there is a particular irony to the refrain that ‘gays are un-African’. The ménage à trois in uMakhosi Gadisa is the focal point of the photograph but the subtext refers to a traditional niche in which gender ambiguity may be a source of social status and ritual power. While the ancestral wives of sangomas are usually platonic arrangements, it is no accident that a large number of individuals – both men and women – with same-sex inclinations work as healers. In fact hairstyling and healing are the occupations of choice for gays in the region. Bafana Mhlanga, who appears in several photographs, works for local government. Thanks to the new Constitution, and its promise of equality on the basis of sexual orientation, local government has opened up as a viable space for out gay men. Bafana getting ready for work points to the routines of the everyday that run as a thread through Mlangeni’s work. Daily rituals of personal grooming are labour-intensive in the absence of running water. These are living conditions that Mlangeni alludes to but does not foreground in his work. We are invited to notice, but not to stare. These mundane images of grooming suggest other more glamorous and ambitious projects of self-styling.


Beauty pageants, such as Miss Gay 10 Years of Democracy (Ermelo, 2004) and Miss Queen of Queens (Standerton, 2009), provide an opportunity for more public projects of self-styling and performance. This is small-town glamour in the form of borrowed shoes, make-do outfits, homemade clothes and hand-me-downs (also known ironically as ‘dankie-missus’) – items creatively reshaped and reworked in the interests of style. Mlangeni’s images of the pageants evoke the dichotomy between aspiration and circumstance. We see contestants parading in the unadorned environment of a bare township hall; the ubiquitous plastic chairs and the handwritten scraps of paper bearing contestant numbers, carried with grace, under the unrelenting glare of the neon lights. Mlangeni has captured scenes of aspiration, of making do and fashioning a dream from what is available. Pageants are known and familiar sites for public spectacle that attract straight audiences. They are social gatherings as well as political events where gay identity is presented to a wider public. But glamour can also be part of the texture of daily life, whether in the form of the gay retro-theme party captured by Mlangeni, or in the stylish use of everyday dress shown in several street-scene portraits. Mlangeni depicts Bigboy wearing a homely outfit – a hat and dress that could be worn by any number of township mamas. We see what Xolani can do with a blouse, a headscarf, jeans and a pair of high heels. There is the particularly evocative image of Palisa, wearing stockings and a short winter coat, against the backdrop of a mine dump in a classic Highveld winter scene. The clothes do not seem adequate against the cold, or sufficient to counter the bleak landscape. It emerges as a strangely incongruous but fitting image that speaks to fantasy and reality, the quest for a cosmopolitan identity in a rural locality. Mlangeni’s photographs of country girls in township streets are about a lot more than dress. They are about claiming public space. Similarly, the men in the photograph Piet Retief, 2009 walk with a sense of confident purpose. They strive forward with a hint of ironic camp, a jive in the step of the youngster bringing up the rear. These men belong; they are visible and present in the small towns and hinterlands of Mpumalanga. In Nyako and Lunga at Nomqghibelo’s Tavern we see another gay-friendly space in which the presence of queens is not only unremarkable but appreciated and clearly enjoyed by the straight local patrons. Whether in beauty pageants, street parties, taverns or in everyday fashion on the township streets, there is a confident, public visibility – a distinct gay identity performed through dress and demeanour. Domestic space features significantly in Mlangeni’s photographs – cooking, ironing, washing dishes, smoking a cigarette, camping it up, reclining on the couch, drinking tea and socialising. Living spaces turn into social hubs – these are safe spaces where gay community is built. They are also places for gossip, intrigue, jealousy and rivalry. Homes are sites of friendship and gregarious social life. The domestic sphere is the terrain of country girls who call themselves ‘ladies’ and refer to their boyfriends as ‘gents’. These are campy terms that invoke the gender roles that shape gay social and erotic life in the countryside. Indeed it is ladies who are gay, while gents are seen


as straight. Gents enter these spaces as outsiders; the tone and tenor of social life shifts subtly but palpably in the presence of gents. A remarkable aspect of this series lies in the scenes of intimacy and affection between ladies and their gents: Bheki and Sipho sharing a picnic in Ermelo, couples dancing and flirting, an intimate moment in Bafana’s room with his soccer star boyfriend, linked hands in an engagement ceremony, the sheer sexiness of Kgomotso and his three days date, 2008. In the latter, the viewer is invited to share in the playful physicality of new love. As with other pictures there is a quiet ordinariness to the scene. And just as social life is organised along gender lines, so is erotic life. Sex takes place between ladies and gents (never between ladies and ladies or gents and gents) – on this point there is no disagreement with the straight world. There is of course some irony in the title Country Girls and one aspect of this is the obvious connectedness between town and countryside, hinterland and city, local and global. Gay issues have become the language in which the cultural and social effects of globalisation are contested in sub-Saharan Africa. Debate about homosexuality becomes a shorthand for talking about contesting ideologies and the perceived cultural impact of a globalising world. What does it mean to be African? What are acceptable sexual mores and norms? We see a snapshot of this in Mlangeni’s work. Gays are regarded ambiguously in this setting. A clue to this lies in Mlangeni’s focus on glamour, fashion and style. If gay lifestyles are dismissed as a ‘fashion’, a symptom of modernity, there is also desire here, for change, for flaunting tradition. Gays are popular precisely because they are seen to be skilled cultural interlocutors, bringing the very latest fashion styles to the countryside. To be fashionable may be frivolous, modern and, by implication, untraditional, but gays also embody a set of aspirations, a desire for the new. Modernity is at once threatening and desirable, and to the extent that gays occupy this symbolic space, they are both celebrated and despised. There is no sensationalism in Mlangeni’s work, no sense of ‘the other’ in his depiction and no sense of an outsider in his perspective – as in his other work, Mlangeni provides an insider’s view. He is a visual ethnographer, not a photojournalist, and his photographs are thick description, not snapshot news. The photographs span six years from 2003 to 2009. There is palpable empathy here. The photographs speak to the triumph of the Constitution. There is backlash in South Africa, there is violence, especially against lesbians, and there is persistent and ongoing discrimination. But there is also the possibility for the unremarkable public visibility of gays living in township communities. Those who say that the Constitution only protects the privileged and affluent are wrong. This is the powerful message of Mlangeni’s Country Girls series. Graeme Reid Reid is a lecturer in LGBT Studies at Yale University


Bafana getting ready for work, 2009


Kgomotso, Palm Dove Lodge, Ermelo, 2008


Oupa ‘Konke enginakho nengiyikho kuyintando KaJehova’, 2009


Oupa Kuhlahle, Wesselton Township, 2009


Sfiso, 2009


Bafana Mhlanga and his soccer star boyfriend, 2009


Kgomotso, Scalo, Bafana, Vusi and Tony, 2009


Intombazane, 2009


Lincoln Mkhatshwa, 2009


Tony from Stanela and Bhuti from Bhetali visit eMlomo, 2009


Talent and his girlfriends, 2009


uSis’bhuti, 2009


Xolani Ngayi, eStanela, 2009


Bigboy, 2009


Palisa, 2009


Innocentia, aka Sakhile, 2009


Lwazi Mtshali, ‘Bigboy’, 2009


Madlisa, 2009


Kgomotso and his three days date, 2008



S’busiso teaching sign language, 2009


Couple Bheki and Sipho, 2009


‘Simplex’, 2009


‘Vintage’, 2008


Human hair, Nkululeko’s Salon, Piet Retief, 2009


Sydney, 2004


uMakhosi Gadisa, 2004


Bhansi and Madlisa dancing at the 60s party, 2003

Nkululeko and friend from Durban, 2003


Rings, Arthur and Thando, 2003


Nyako and Lunga at Nomqghibelo’s Tavern, Ermelo, 2009


Innocentia and Bigboy with friends from Carolina, Ermelo, 2009


Bheki and Nhlanhla, 2008


Mpumi, 2008


Joshua contesting Miss Queen of Queens, Standerton, 2008

Bheki on ramp, 2008


Contestants at Miss Queen of Queens, 2008


Nhlanhla Ngubeni, 2008


Mandla from Piet Retief at Miss Ten Years of Democracy, 2003


Smilo Myeni, 2003


Sabelo Mlangeni was born in Driefontein near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga in 1980. He moved to Johannesburg in 2001 and joined the Market Photo Workshop, graduating in 2004. He won the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts in 2009 and the Edward Ruiz Mentorship Award in 2006. His first solo show, Invisible Women, took place at Warren Siebrits, Johannesburg, in 2007. His series Men Only was included on Summer Projects at Michael Stevenson, Cape Town, in 2009; he had a solo show comprising Men Only and At Home at Brodie/Stevenson, Johannesburg, in March 2010; and Country Girls was included on This is Our Time at Michael Stevenson in June 2010. Recent group exhibitions include After A, Photo Notes on South Africa as part of the Atri Reportage Festival, Italy (2010); 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2010); A Look Away: South African Photography Today at Kuckei + Kuckei, Berlin (2008); and I Am Not Afraid: The Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg at Camera Austria, Graz (2007) and Johannesburg Art Gallery (2010). Acknowledgments This project was supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University. Academic research was funded by the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO) of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Catalogue no 52 July 2010 Cover image Piet Retief, 2009 All photographs Silver gelatin prints, various dimensions, editions of 7 + 2AP MICHAEL STEVENSON Buchanan Building, 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock 7925, Cape Town, South Africa Tel +27 (0)21 462 1500 | Editors Federica Angelucci, Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Image repro Tony Meintjes Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town



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