Documentary photographs are, at their core, material to enlighten. They assist both the words and their causes, self- and social-understanding, but they are not like words at all. They do not, as words do, sustain that myth of purity. Being a kind of imprint or image-copy of our physical world, photographs can show us things we don’t or can’t see: thorny overlaps in reality rendered in sharp compatibility, clarity, and publicity. To me this is their enduring charm, denying us finally the neatness of our words, and perhaps the neatness of our aspirations too.
Isipropfetho, taken by Sabelo Mlangeni in 2008, is a picture of a woman in a white shirt marching up a sandy bank. In one hand she holds the chicken she has just slaughtered for religious sacrifice, and in the other she holds the knife just used to do so. The title Isiprofetho translates to ‘the prophet’, and the woolen ropes strapped diagonally across her white shirt state her rank as umprofethi (or prophetess) in her church. The picture was exhibited at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) this year for Mlangeni’s show ‘Umlindelo wamaKholwa’, translated as the Night Vigil of the Believers. The exhibition presents photographs from within the two Zionist churches where Mlangeni is a practicing member, from his early days in Driefontein and later also at a church in Johannesburg. It is the largest popular religion in the country, with approximately thirty percent of South Africans forming members. The photographs were taken over a ten year period and this show emphasizes in particular the Zionist ritual of the vigil. Through history, the vigil is defined as a period for which one stays awake during the time usually intended for sleep. Often this is meant for sustained prayer, but it is also considered a manner of mourning. In some cases the term is used to describe keeping guard or watching over something, like a kind of defense.
Understandably these settings drawn over hours and hours in wait and in prayer make for an uncommon intimacy between people. From the title of Mlangeni’s previous show, the ‘Longing of Belonging‘ (2017), it is clear to see just how much community and belonging feature an object to the experience of his own religious affiliation. The pictures on this show are all small in size and neatly arranged as a single sequence along the museum wall. Abaprofethi, Mamelodi (2008) is dim and blurry depicting ritual in progress. Nhlapo, Mama Thebu, Mama Ndlovu, Sweetmama, KwaMabunda, Fernie (2009) pictures friends sharing tea and chatting, while still dressed in their white Zionist garb. But then, interestingly, Mlangeni also muddies the distinction between the casual socializing and transcendent moments of his churches, and he does so using the fairly spontaneous means of 35mm film complications: tonal damage, chemical dribbles, cut off frames. These experiments with image-as-also-material or material-as-also-image, picture the spiritual feelings that totally saturate this community’s life, but which do not easily find voice through the empirical lens of a camera. Umlindelo wamaKholwa (2016), which is the first picture on the show and also the title of the exhibition, is a daylight scene shroud in a tonal wash of manufactured darkness. In Time, A Morning after Umlindelo (2016) is a photograph of two men standing outside on dry open ground. But, by some disturbance, the photograph is only present on the bottom half of the picture – the figures’ heads completely cut off – as if the top of the picture had been exposed to daylight prematurely, or similar.
The Zionist churches are unlike most other religious communities in that typically they do not build or occupy church structures, and there is no facilitating or symbolic architecture. The spiritual basis and practice has emerged from an African bearing of Western Christian stories alongside local spiritualist healing traditions. Zionist congregations move through and gather in the hilly grasslands or the dry expanse of Highveld, as seen in Entabeni, Umthandazo (2016) or Ukubhabhadiswa Umama Zulu neBandla (2003). What commands the open landscape is the bright white uniform. And to a large extent it is these uniforms which give this religion its social form. These monochrome, pastoral scenes are immensely lyrical, and I imagine more so to those of us who are looking in from the outside. In Mfundisi Ndlangamandla eFernie (2002), for instance, we’re witnessing a baptism ritual. Here a single man stands half-submerged in a natural pool. It seems to be just the two of them at the baptism pool, Mlangeni and this man waist-deep. His white shirt still dry in anticipation of the ritual dunking.
The baptisms embody a defining trait of Zionism. Like their dressing in the long-established white clothing, the baptism ritual states “that they have walked the path of purification and that they are no longer troubled by sickness, trauma or alienation… [bound by] the shared history of confession and cleansing,” explains Hlonipha Mokoena. White is the colour of light, of cleanliness, the untainted, the virgin: the pure. Kassia St Clair, in her book The Secret Life of Colours (2016), dubs it ‘tyrannical’ in its denomination of purity, which I like. To further reinforce these associations, the colour white is incredibly difficult to maintain (a luxury) in such a dirty world like ours: she recalls the ‘battalions of staff’ needed to keep white clothes from discolouring though the 16th and 17th centuries, and how today “Someone wearing a snow-pale winter coat telegraphs a subtle visual message: ‘I do not need to take public transport’.” A white outfit that is meant to perform primarily outside in rural nature to me marks the defiance the Zionist ideal, a transcendent ideal, from the start.
“To me clothes are a significant part of the visual world. They are the membrane between our inner world and outside world. My favourite T-shirt may cost very little but it is very dear to me… A lot of attitudes and opinions are expressed through music, dance, clothes… I photograph people dancing and socializing because they allow for pictures that speak about out longing for togetherness,” wrote contemporary German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. I read this in the exhibition text for his touring retrospective ‘Fragile’, held at Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) at around the same time as Mlangeni’s exhibition at WAM. Through his years of photographing Tillmans has kept an ongoing interest in clothing, and its absence. Detail shots picture delicate painterly folds of new fabrics, as seen in Faltenwurf (Pines), a (2016), while his unclothed figures picture statements of freedom or clefts of erotic privacy. Phillip, close-up III, for instance, a large-scale image installed from 2009-2015 in the uncompromising Berlin techno venue Berghain, is an image of a man, trousers down and bending while one hand reaches back to reveal an epic anus.
Tillmans’ pictures continue to hold incredible influence on contemporary photography and image-making. He was recognized in his early career for what some have called ‘journalistic’ photos of nightlife and party scenes, 90s-era Acid House in particular – a subculture born out of by feelings of disaffectedness, new electronic music, and an ecstasy-induced spirituality and closeness. The news headlines this new scene provoked in its time present images of a society in panic: “ACID HOUSE: Sex, Drugs, And Music Cult Risk to Our Children,” and the more eloquent: “EVIL of ECSTACY.” This thread of pictures is only part of a larger subcultural attitude that speaks through his work. In a recent interview with Emily Witt, Tillmans admitted that “when showing his work in conservative countries, [he] sometimes takes out the more sexually explicit content, but, he said, ‘I make sure a tender gaze toward the male body doesn’t go unnoticed by a straight male audience. That is my minimum’.”
To walk through this Tillmans retrospective held in the airy old galleries of JAG is surprisingly peaceful. The way in which the photographs are curated and hung on the walls is a significant part of the work for Tillmans. He curates and hangs the exhibitions himself, alongside his long-time studio team. Rebellious, young energy is arranged in close conversation with his abstract image experiments, the romance of bare bodies, clothing in detail, the sublime in nature and in the new-world, and his beautiful still life pictures. One particularly charming moment for me was with an in-situ image of a nude man – seated, his elbow is bent and resting at the knee, whilst forearm cutting up the image to hold his unseen head up and make a triangular gap of light at the centre. Tillmans positioned this small picture high up in the corner of one of the galleries so that, when the viewer looks up to see it, the figure’s limbs in the image mirror the exact shape of the neoclassical cornices crossing just above it.
I am not entirely sure from where this urge to document comes. And these two sets of photographs are as such documentary: even with each photographer’s distinct poetry, Mlangeni and Tillmans are concerned with some reality and its representation. The impulse seems tied to a desire to hold the world in some comprehensible way, even if only for one that 250th of a second within the tight corners of a 35mm frame, so that something might ‘remain and endure’. Think of the words we use – ‘take’, ‘capture’, an image ‘still’ – to explain the moment of making a photograph. Held to remember, as John Berger writes, or held to show and share like a kind of communication. Just as all remnants, these pictures add to our growing body as an ever-accumulating people: one addressing another.
Although depicting two practically contradictory ways of life, the one defined by the final judgement and the other by a radical openness and non-judgment, there are no prescriptions made for the sake of the viewer in either of these bodies of contemporary photography. Mlangeni’s work is of religious ceremony, but the images are not religious – they are not like the biblical imagery which depicts, say, the hanging of traitor Judas, or the wooden carvings inside medieval chapels made to warn of the sins of the flesh; the images’ object is not to educate on the judgment of good versus evil, right versus wrong.
The confessional documentary method in which both of these photographers work bridges a gap for empathy. Not via the arguably more common tricks of the moralist’s high-ground, or some form of self-contempt, but rather in a language that looks with tenderness, for beauty, and picks from the territory of one’s personal space – be that a territory in which one lives their life or a territory to which the photographer takes themselves, unfamiliar. The exhibitions were up a mere twenty minute journey from one another, through the city centre of Johannesburg. They were practically in conversation. And they uplifted through their own particular testings of beauty, confession, and living closer together.
Sabelo Mlangeni’s ‘Umlindelo wamaKholwa’ ran from 26 June – 27 October 2018 at Wits Art Museum.
Wolfgang Tillmans ‘Fragile’ was presented by Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) in collaboration with Wolfgang Tillmans and the Goethe-Institut and ran from 08 July – 30 September 2018 at Johannesburg Art Gallery.
 Mokoena, H. (2018). ‘Sabelo Mlangeni: Rebel Spirit’, Sabelo Mlangeni: Umlindelo wamaKholwa. Wits Art Museum: Johanneburg