Zwelethu Mthethwa: New Works

The South African portraitist's latest exploration of a person's true identity

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For his sixth solo show at NYC’s Jack Shainman Gallery, photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa presents three new series of works that continue to establish his role as one of South Africa’s most perceptive portraitists. Born in Durban, the Cape Town-based artist draws on personal reflections when conceiving a new project, but once determined, is wholly dedicated to exposing an individual’s entire identity. “What portraiture is about is, you’re really trying to get into a person’s skin,” he says. For Mthethwa, revealing someone’s true identity is more about exploring the relationship they have with their belongings or their environment than capturing their unique appearance.

“I think that all of my work is autobiographical—it’s a self-portrait of me,” he explains while discussing his latest series, “Hope Chest.” In South Africa, hope chests are large wooden boxes a woman receives as the final wedding present from her family before she marries. Inside are the woman’s most prized possessions, which she takes with her to her new home. Mthethwa tells us his mother had a hope chest and when growing up, he never really understood the relevance of it. “As I grow wiser and older, I look back at how I connect with it and how my mom connected with it. So this [series] comes as a result of me connecting with my mom,” he says.


As a portrait photographer though, Mthethwa moves beyond his own personal ties to create utterly compelling depictions of various rural women and the lives contained inside each chest. “The hope chest symbolizes a passage of time, but in a very awkward way. When you look at the actual design of the hope chest, it is a coffin. It marks the death of the past—but it is a past that is celebrated, because the little trinkets that are in there, they somehow connect with the past, but you move with that box so it always reminds you of your past as a single woman. So it’s not like a really terrible death, but it’s somehow a window to the past,” he says of the beautifully composed, harmoniously colorful images.


In the second series of new works, “Brave Ones,” Mthethwa travels back to Durban to consider the style of dress worn by a group of young men from a Nazareth baptist church. “There’s an androgynous element in the fact that they wear kilts and blouses with frills,” he observes. “And then they contrast that with something like sports socks and they wear shoes with the metal toe—so it’s very interesting how they mix and match.” Their attire is also a reflection of the area’s history, with the kilts and pit helmets serving as reminders of the British Army and Scottish Highlanders, but what Mthethwa finds fascinating is the boys’ misunderstanding of these pieces of Western dress. “I like the way they take an item and create a new identity. So in a way they are reinventing their identity,” he comments about their casual use of the bow-tie.


In “The End of An Era,” the third series of new works, Mthethwa removes the individual all together to capture the essence of that person. “I wanted to look at the space and see how the space could define the people without the people being present,” he says. Mthethwa photographed the hostels sprinkled across the South African countryside, where migrant workers stay when doing temporary work. Not touching a single item, he reveals each person’s environment and what it says about them. Of the untitled image showing numerous grooming products he says, “You can tell that the person that lives here really loves their space and they are clean.”

Mthethwa is as much an outside observer as he is a native in his own land. This intriguing polarity combined with his innate talent for storytelling and composition leads to gripping portraits that suck you in as a viewer, asking you to ponder every part of the photo. A fascinating follow-up to his 2010 show “Inner Views,” his new works are on view through 23 February 2013.

See more photos from the exhibition, along with quotes from Mthethwa, in the slideshow. All images are courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.