There are some aspects of modern life that seem inappropriate to be engaged with through an artistic medium. Religion falls into this category. The ‘coolness’ of contemporary art is juxtaposed to the ‘seriousness’ of religion and spirituality. These thoughts and worries surfaced ahead of my interview with Sabelo Mlangeni about his exhibition ‘Umlindelo wamaKholwa’ at the Wits Art Museum.
My expectation of finding a traditional photographic exhibition was immediately dashed at the entrance. A large church-like cloth is draped up the ramp to Mlangeni’s show. It is titled Iladi, and is a blue 2 X 5m fabric drapery with a star-like cross in white sewn into its centre. The piece seems to act as a barrier between the outside world and the world encapsulated within Mlangeni’s exhibition, and this opened up our conversation.
Sabelo Mlangeni: I want to start with this work because it summarises my concept in a way. The symbolic meaning of this piece comes from my experience of speaking about Prophets to people. I said to a friend when putting this show together that I was sick at that time. He said ‘Did you go to a doctor?’ I said ‘No, I went to a prophet.’ And everyone was like ‘Oh… you went to a prophet…’
When they asked if its working I had to explain that there is a process and prescription you have to follow. I think this piece comes out of my fascination with prophets and this contact with the other world. So, this piece came about after this guy told me during praying and using the spirit that I have this luck. But when it tries to open up, then these things come quickly and block the luck. So, he told me that to get this luck there are certain things that he has to do, so it doesn’t pass it stays.
Usually I don’t respond to these prescriptions but I thought for this exhibition, ‘How do I erase this curse?’ You know when you say these things in English it seems as though it’s a difficult thing to do, but when it’s in Zulu then it sounds like you are taking an oath on something… I don’t know how to explain it but it’s something like that. After we say I’m telling the truth about taking this oath, we make this cross. It was from asking the question of how I go about erasing this curse that this piece and collaboration of it was included in this exhibition.
Nolan Stevens: Was this done by people from the Zionist church?
Yes, I collaborated with uLondi Xaba, a lady who makes the church uniforms for us. I asked her to make this for me by giving her an idea of what I wanted for this work.
When did this fascination with the Zionist church start for you?
There is no specific mark where I can say, ‘This is the time it all started for me.’ I started looking at this theme parallel to my introduction to photography, because it was at the same time in ’97 that I started photographing the church in Driefontein – photographing the church from the inside and also from the outside. Around 2014, I started to go back to this body of work. At the time I was playing around with the idea of being born-again while dealing with my own issues. This fascination stretched from that to relate more to amakholwa (the believers), and once you get to that point you instinctively go back to the formality of words and the definition of them, and thinking around the ideas of umlindelo (vigil) and thinking about what’s happening in the waiting: the relationships and friendships that are formed. This waiting and thinking about amaqaba (non-believers), and I think about those who resisted Westernisation. That’s why I think of this idea of umlinda, a waiting in a very open way that’s in a way parallel to the South African landscape: looking at what’s happening in this environment as a community of peoples.
The exhibition definitely feels like a spiritual space after coming up the ramp and first being met with the cloth and then with the different colours of the church on the wall. It is a move away from the traditional sense of a photography exhibition into the territory of installation because of all the non-photographic elements included in this space – like the drapery, video piece and church sticks.
I have to ask if you intended this exhibition to take on more of an installation feel to it rather than a typical photographic exhibition one?
Yes, because over the years I’ve been very photo-based and that’s gotten me to a place where I ask, ‘How do I expand on this body of work in a way that I can include video and some installations?’ It was a very conscious decision but, of course, it’s still a photographic show. I also have to look at how I place myself amongst my contemporaries in the arts. If we look closer at a lot of the works here I think you’ll find a lot of hidden suggestions that the people in my church could wonder why I would include such things
The suggestiveness Mlangeni alludes to can be seen in works such as that of Wahamba Umhlaba Sithandaza which depicts a scene of mostly men gathered in prayer, with a solitary woman who Mlangeni says had steadily been nudged out to the back of the group despite being the Bishop and founder of that particular church. A seemingly innocent image at first glance, but one which also adds to current discourses of patriarchy and feminism. His video installation Umlindelo is another piece which does not shy away from contentious topics in its documentation of a rural choir group which includes openly homosexual members. This decision to use what was once termed a ‘new media’ mode to communicate a contemporary progressive understanding in what most would assume is a conservative setting, appears to present a shifting in the manner in which most of us view his black and white images.
Looking at these works as a whole it seems as though you have shot mostly elderly women and made a choice to work predominantly in monochrome. With this in mind, I’m wondering if you secretly harbour a fascination for the past?
At first, I thought of my photography just through the medium of it. So, this way of working in black and white was mainly because I liked the physicality of it and working in a darkroom. Of course, there is something that happens to these images that relates to time in this process, that relates to how we get lost in time and how certain parts that I photographed of this country have been frozen in time. These are images that are not only about the church members but about the everyday struggles of people.
How do you position yourself as a film photographer against the discourses and immediacy of digital photography?
I think this process for me slows things down and has, over the years sharpened how I see things as a photographer, and how I look at the world outside. This idea of just clicking for everything doesn’t really work, especially when you’ve been using a format of 12 frames. You want things to be on point for each of those frames, which gives me more respect for the medium. I think sometimes it’s not even about how expensive the camera is or how far the technology goes, but more about how developed your creative eye is.
I found the sizing of your works surprising because I’d imagined large-scale prints of these works especially because they are of a religious nature. Could you speak more about your choices around presentation?
I think a lot about the sizing of images because that’s also political. To be honest, I’m not interested in overwhelming and being spectacular, I think I believe in the importance of really reading images and tempting viewers to pay attention and really notice the little things in these photos. The next level of intimacy here comes with me not including the glass in the frames so there’s nothing between the viewer and the photograph.
The more I spoke to Sabelo Mlangeni, and took in his work, the more I viewed this photographer as a contemporary artist using non-photographic elements such as the drapery and the blue and white painted walls. The unconventional framing approach which could easily have served as nothing more than decorative elements,instead coexists with the photographic prints themselves. It moves away from a photographic exhibition implanted into a white cube but rather exists as an environment that gives glimpses of life within the Zionist Church.