Frankie's Barber Shop 1998
Frankie's Barber Shop
When Angels Come Down
At the Market 1998
A feature on an artist in the public eye
It is the interface between the lived world and "image-making" that drives Zwelethu Mthethwa. This he achieves through photography and pastel drawing. In both mediums it is the empirical - the re-presentation of an actual event or scene - that is key. This doesn't make Mthethwa a realist however. The framing of the work is self-aware, poised, keenly attuned to the dictates of the pictorial. Hence "image-maker". For Mthethwa "traditional documentary photography treats people as subjects not as human beings". Which is why the artist's work never merely records. Rather, each element in a work is imbued with an aura, a quality that transfigures and ennobles the seen.
"I always say that the word 'artist' is not an appropriate word. Art refers to the author, to ownership, it puts you above culture. I would like to be seen as an image-maker. Art is never about one's experiences in a vacuum, but about life at large ... In South Africa we don't really have an audience that is educated in the arts. I'm trying to pull in that audience ... In my photography and pastels I try to restore respect and dignity. People present themselves in the way they want to be seen."
Mthethwa is one of the six nominees shortlisted for the 1999 Vita Art Prize, awarded to the artist considered to be the most outstanding in any one year. Each nominee will make new work for the awards show to be held at the Sandton Civic Art Gallery later this year, at which the winner of the R20 000 award will be announced.
The artist has just returned from Gothenburg in Sweden, where one wall of the Konstmuseum is hung with large-scale blow-ups of his photographs of black South Africans in their homes as part of the 'Dreams and Clouds' exhibition which first opened in Stockholm last year.
Earlier this year, Mthethwa had a one-person exhibition in the Project Room at Marco Noire Contemporary Art, Madrid.
And before that:
Last year, the artist showed on Houston Fotofest; 'A History of African Photography' at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; on the Dakar Biennial in Senegal; and in other exhibitions in Tokyo, Rotterdam, Umeo, Sweden, London, and Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
The artist's heavy exhibition schedule includes art fairs in Basle and Chicago, and an appearance at 'Looking for a Place' curated by Rose Martinez on Site Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Born in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, Zwelethu Mthethwa studied for a Diploma in Fine Arts at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. He followed this with a Master of Fine Arts in Imaging Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology, USA.
Mthethwa has exhibited since 1986 and his work has been seen internationally at exhibitions that include 'Africa by Africa' at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. He is currently a senior lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town.