If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”  
                                                                                                      - Orwell.

Sabelo Mlangeni (b. 1980, Driefontein, Mpumalanga) is a Johannesburg-based photographer focusing primarily on perceptions of queerness and gay culture within the backwaters of rural South Africa. He moved to Johannesburg in 2001 to study Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop, completing his studies in 2004. His first solo show titled Invisible Women was held at the now defunct Warren Siebrits gallery in Johannesburg in 2007. Stevenson currently represents him, where he has exhibited his most impactful work to date, notably Country Girls (2003-2009) and Ghost Towns (2009-2011). Mlangeni took-up photography after he began documenting the small towns and rural areas that he encountered whilst growing up, capturing the commonplace, often-abject desolation, particularly in his home province of Mpumalanga.

Mlangeni works exclusively with black-and-white photography, portraying the often ignored and unspoken aspects of life in rural South Africa. His explorations of outsider politics and cultural idiosyncrasies in towns such as Bethal, Driefontein, Ermelo, Piet Retief, Sekunda and Standerton are a testament to a drastically changing society struggling to hold onto its heritage, whilst straining to maintain its integrity in an increasingly globalised world. 

Mlangeni's rural backdrops display the affects of urbanisation on traditional conventions and age-old rites-of-passage. He challenges commonplace African stereotypes about gay culture, depicting often-unseen yet unadulterated, intimate yet non-voyeuristic visions of the artist’s world as a black gay man.

Mlangeni does not bypass tradition, often embracing orthodox African perspectives that may seem archaic in contrast to contemporary understandings of sex and gender. Such traditional perspectives often frown upon the subject of Mlangeni’s work, but he finds virtue in these points of view because they forge a sense of commonality, which he supports in the context of ‘otherness’. 

The exhibitionist and performative qualities of Mlangeni’s images traverse the contrasts between custom and modernity. Contained within a broad understanding of 'otherness', urban and rural, homosexual and heterosexual, eurocentric and afrocentric all fall under the auspices of the traditional. Reiterating the perennial bond between anthropology and photography, and reflecting upon pertinent issues often seen as taboo in rural communities, where tribalism vies against liberalism, Mlangeni exposes the process in which gay African men find their sense of belonging and identity in an often indifferent world. 

"The predicament into which one is thrown, then, is how to imagine identity in the present tense of South Africa's transitional reshaping and reconstitution of its reality; between authenticity and stereotype. For everything seems haunted by this paradoxical affirmation of origin and disavowal of past histories."
                                                                                          - Enwezor
Mlangeni’s subjects are far from affluent; life is not easy for them. This impoverishment is apparent in the environments that he finds them situated. His depictions of small, practically derelict towns, all but forgotten, dissect the notion of  'uSis'bhuti', which brings African gay life to the fore. The term 'uSis'bhuti' describes the manner in which young boys sometimes act like little girls. Mlangeni questions the narrow view implied by 'uSis'bhuti', shunning the fact that gays are seen as 'un-African', or a 'by-product' of Anglicisation, globalisation and democracy. In this way, Mlangeni blurs distinctions between the immigrant with the migrant, the outsider and the insider, the vagrant and the accepted.

Historico-politcal and Socio-economic rifts created by the dualism between the urban and the rural are paramount to Mlangeni’s work. His depictions of, practically abandoned, on-the-edge-of-nowhere, communicate an important shift that has taken place within most African communities. The opportunities and freedom afforded to urban dwellers have never reached these towns, emphasizing age-old scars left unattended, and debts left unpaid. Mlangeni’s portrayal of spaces-in-waiting and people-in-transition ultimately tells the story of the migration of traditions and the effects it has on the rootedness of a given cultural space. The remaining landscape is eerily surreal and isolated, suspended in time, painting an authentic picture of gay life in the countryside.


This essay is the first in a series of twenty texts that document key contributions in contemporary South African photography.

Copyright © Shane de Lange, 2013.

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