Sabelo Mlangeni offered that “two seemingly unrelated works are placed in conversation to each other and perhaps destabilise what people imagine South Africa is” in his 2012 Biennial photography exhibition My Storie (2012) and Men Only (2008-09) at the Tea Factory and it seems that his hopes for a dialogue have been realised.
The presentation of the images in Men Only reflects Mlangeni’s experience of slowly gaining the trust of workers in Johannesburg, taking us from the public space of the pavement into the privacy of the male only hostel rooms. The proximity of hostel living is seen in the toe-to-toe sandals in a bedroom whilst the makeshift nature of practical or emotional comfort is found in images of a tarpaulin shower curtain and the intimacy of a shared blanket. Yet the starkness and coldness is clear despite the physical closeness of the men, indeed is more apparent because of it.
I don’t share the collective imagery that Mlangeni proposes is associated with the hostels as places of violence and sexual abuse, therefore my preconceptions of them weren’t necessarily challenged but the legacy of apartheid seems clearly apparent from the images, reinforced by the accompanying collection My Storie.
Hung directly opposite Men Only, you are caught in the crossfire of the complex mesh of rights and belonging in post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa by the fixed, full frontal stares of the largely portrait images.
Now a minority in their neighbourhood, these white inner-city dwellers appear to maintain their right to belong through the physical anchor of property, refusing (with one exception) Mlangeni access to their internal sanctuary something which, as a black photographer, he mainly attributes to race. Their attitude seems outmoded and out of synch with an
outsider’s perception of a ‘new’ South Africa, with images that resonate a 70s feel, typified by the final dismissive image.
Visitors to the exhibition express varied opinions, from suggesting that it’s an overly simplistic response to a complex situation to congratulating Mlangeni on highlighting the issues in the “(faux) rainbow nation”. Mlangeni sites his experience as a photographer in reference to the African concept of ubuntu (which can be translated as “I am what I am because of who we all are”) as his images are produced through his experience with and the generosity of his subjects. Ubuntu was also a term used by both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in reference to the interconnectedness of humanity and a sense of belonging that is diminished through oppression and mistreatment of others.
Over-simplistic or not, Mlangeni has succeeded in connecting the very separate experiences of two different communities in Johannesburg, both of which share the reality of living in a post-apartheid society, both which are trying to find ways in which all belong: both are ubuntu, as we all are.
To Nov 25