Review: Zwelethu Mthethwa


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Some time ago, I spent a week looking for African photography. I asked a friend of mine, who had spent years photographing in Africa and who is friends with many artists from the continent, and he sent me a list with names. The majority of those artists I never managed to find online. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that there’s no other way to find them. But as someone who is relying on the internet as the medium to disseminate photography, it was an incredibly frustrating experience. (more)

I was particularly disappointed about this problem because I am under the impression that Africa, a continent that is home to one billion people, is typically discussed in a very simplistic way in the media (in the rare cases where it is discussed at all): There’s a lot of poverty plus an assorted mix of corrupt regimes, resulting in regular famines and plenty of war. I’ve never been to Africa, but that cannot possibly be the full picture.

In fact, when I went to the opening of a show featuring photography done by African artists in Berlin last year, all of that (poverty, corrupt regimes, famine, war) was missing. Instead, there were images of families, relationships, people interacting with their environments, … In other words, it could have been a group show of photography by American or German photographers.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that I only want to see that kind of view of Africa. But we need to move away from seeing Africa as some sort of exotic place that’s only newsworthy if the famines or wars get out of control; and we also need to see an Africa in art galleries that doesn’t necessarily only focus on the extremely exotic.

Aperture’s Zwelethu Mthethwa is an extremely important step in that direction. Featuring the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa, the book showcases some of the artist’s most recent bodies of work, for the most part environmental portraiture, with a lot of stunningly beautiful photography. In a wonderful interview at the end of the book, Zwelethu Mthethwa explains his thinking about his work - it’s a perfect a package as you can get.

I really hope that Zwelethu Mthethwa will not be the last book of its kind, showcasing photography done by African artists. We need to see more.

Related: DLK’s review

Zwelethu Mthethwa, photography by the artist, with contributions by Isolde Brielmaier and Okwui Enwezor, 120 pages, Aperture, 2010