Kayleigh Davies visits Sabelo Mlangeni’s exhibition at The Tea Factory

Photograph by Kayleigh Davies

Sabelo Mlangeni focuses on the idea of ‘the outsider’, thoroughly executing emotion and perspective. The simplicity of the location (Tea Factory, Wood Street) as a backdrop aids the works beautifully; a guest could easily mistake this as a permanent gallery, not simply a useable city space for the duration of the Biennial.

‘My Storie’ (2012) and ‘Men Only'(2008-09) create a dialogue between one another, sharing themes of isolation and discomfort yet remaining united in their pride. All black and white images, the artist evokes personality and character from the subjects.

‘My Storie’ (2012) could easily be seen as from any era, which adds further context to the art work on display. Set in Bertrams, a poor area on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the artist senses a hidden community here. Following the move of wealthy white residents, those who were left behind were hostile to the artist and despite him staying for five months, would eventually lead to a series of photographs of which only one was indoors. The artist explores their defensiveness and ponders their reasons for their inhospitality.

‘Men Only’ (2008-09) is also set in Johannesburg; it is here that Mlangeni explores the poverty and suffering of the men living at the George Goch hostel on the East Rand of Johannesburg. He captures images of a society that moved here to improve their lives, working people who deserve better. It is obvious to the eye as we discover the works that there are no women present here, perhaps protected from the living conditions.

Photograph by Kayleigh Davies

The artist spent weeks and months researching and creating relationships in a place where they believe Ubuntu ‘you are what you are because of the generosity of others’. Relevant to his career, as each subject is generous in their giving of permission and fortitude, it translates through the work that Mlangeni understood and empathised with their pain, desiring for them the better life they wanted for themselves.

A beautiful series of works that has earned its recognition, handsomely set in the Tea Factory setting and worthy of your time.  The exhibition leaves just one question, ‘How do you approach Ubuntu in the face of an increasingly modernized society?’

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