The Longing of Belonging
Photographs of Zionist Christians in contemporary South Africa, by Sabelo Mlangeni
13 June – 10 September 2017
South Lecture Room
This exhibition of photographs by the South African photographer, Sabelo Mlangeni, portrays Zionist Christians in contemporary South Africa. Zionism (unrelated to Jewish Zionism) is the country’s largest popular religious movement – approximately 30% of all South Africans are members of a Zionist church.
While Mlangeni has photographed Zionists since 1997, the idea of an exhibition dedicated to the topic crystallized during the course of his conversations throughout 2016 with Joel Cabrita, an academic at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Divinity who is researching the history of Zionism in South Africa.
Mlangeni is himself a member of a Zionist church and his own trace in these intimate, personal portraits of church members is subtly felt. Boundaries between observer and subject are continually erased and broken down. Mlangeni is portraying his own belief as much as he is exploring the spiritual commitments of his photographic subjects.
Sabelo Mlangeni is a photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he moved in 2001. Mlangeni joined the Market Photo Workshop in this year, and graduated from it in 2004. His most recent solo exhibition was in Auckland, New Zealand at the Artspace (‘Heartbreaker’). He has also recently had a solo show with the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna entitled ‘Postapart/heid Communities’ in 2014. Mlangeni’s work has been exhibited in notable group exhibitions, including Public Intimacy: Art and Social Life in South Africa at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2014); Apartheid and After at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam (2014); Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2013); Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African photography at the V&A Museum, London (2011); and I am not afraid: The Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg, Johannesburg Art Gallery (2010). Mlangeni has been the recipient of several international prizes, including the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts in 2009 and the POPCAP Piclet Prize for African Photography in 2016.
Working mainly in a black and white format, Mlangeni’s photographs have focused on capturing the intimate, everyday moments of communities in contemporary South Africa. His work includes ‘Big City’ (2002 to 2015) which focuses on Johannesburg’s history, and ‘Country Girls’ (shot between 2003 and 2009), which focuses on gay communities in rural South Africa, especially in the area of Driefontein, his own village in the province of Mpumalanga. Personally knowing many of his photographic subjects as childhood friends means that Mlangeni has been able to create photographs from a perspective of unique understanding and membership of the community he is portraying. Throughout his work, Mlangeni avoids ‘othering’ or ‘exoticizing’ his subjects, and instead attempts to show the multi-faceted, intimate reality of daily life of these individuals. While many of them face discrimination due to their sexual identities, Mlangeni’s work does not cast them as ‘victims’ but rather portrays their resilience, joyfulness and dignity as ordinary people.