Sabelo Mlangeni Exhibition on Zion Churches shows in Johannesburg

Growing up, our mother would, on certain occasions, remind us to be home earlier than usual from our childish escapades so that she would not be late ko moletelong. Moletelo or umlindelo directly translates to ‘ waiting’, and this waiting occurs when members of a congregation meet at a common place of worship to ‘wait’ in expectance. But while they wait, they became engulfed by songs of worship and praise, and prayer. This sense of awaiting, is the preoccupation of Sabelo Mlangeni’s recent exhibition Umlindelo Wa Makholwa(the Wait of the Believers), which was on display at the Wits Arts Museum, in the centre of Johannesburg.

Entering the Gallery

On the Mezzanine floor of the gallery, where the exhibition is mounted, we are met by a large cobalt fabric. It has a white star embroidered in the middle. This serves to welcome museum goers to the intimacy and sacredness of the space, to remind us that we are perhaps on holy ground. Before one can get further, songs of praise are heard, it is the video installation part of the exhibition. In it, is the actual footage of the ‘wait’, the young and old, are one in song.


Image from Sabelo Mlangeni

On the walls, we see the journey that led to the singing and communion. In one image, titled KwaMaseko eShabalala Driefontein(2017), we see the beginning of the journey, the congregants come together, in their church uniform, with lily white gowns with blue (some are blue with white), coming together in anticipation and waiting to hear from the divine, and sometimes to be amidstthe divine.

Some of the photographs induct us to the ever present question of land and belonging, in some of the photographs, church members are seen in the distance in the landscapes, going to their sacred places of worship which have become highly contested spheres in the political realm; most Zionist churches worship in open air areas across the outskirts of the city, so issues in land reform and the accelerated construction of housing developments eradicates their places of worship.

Background to the Exhibition

Sabelo Mlangeni was born and raised in Driefontein; Mpumalanga– Driefontein is approximately 256 KM away from Johannesburg. Mlangeni graduated from the Market Photo Workshop, a photography school that was founded by David Goldblatt in Newtown, in 2004.

The photographic exhibition is in its second iteration since it opened at Cambridge University, in the United Kingdom, as part of Dr Joel Cabrita’s research on the history of Zionism in Southern Africa, Cabrita’s research was interested in the expansion of Zionism across the Atlantic Ocean and reaching Africa, with an emphasis on Southern Africa, and it is also a collaboration with Kabelo Malatsie, an independent curator from South Africa.

Its iteration at Wits Arts Museum opened on 27thof June 2018 and ran until the 28thof October 2018. The opening of the exhibition saw the congregating of people from different walks of life coming to partake, with a sense of almost eavesdropping, on a sacred process that started since 1997 and was completed this year– this resulted in over 50 photographs for the show.

Rediscovering the Ordinary

Through the images, clinically mounted on the museum’s walls, audiences were transported into Mlangeni’s journey in the church: between his home church, the one in Driefontein, and the other one he has made for himself in Johannesburg. The photographs, all of which were in black and white, have come to represent his style. They are intimate and capture the worshipers in a refreshing way, we are reintroduced to the ordinary.

Sabelo Mlangeni, born in 1980 in Driefontein, grew up in the province of Mpumalanga in north-eastern South Africa. In 2001 he moved to Johannesburg and graduated from the photography school ​“Market Photo Workshop” in 2004. He then worked on many long-term series about various social groups in his homeland. Recently, he travelled through Europe, and he is now gathering together the work he did then for a new exhibition.

This brings to mind Njabulo Ndebele, on his essay Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Some New Writing In South Africa,  as he posits that a move from the spectacular narratives in cultural production can be countered by a cultural production that privileges the interiority of its subjects. Mlangeni’s work does this exceptionally well. There are no exotic tropes of black people shaking violently in prayer, having no control over their being. But rather, there is an intimacy and distance we experience in looking at the images, that gives dignity to its subjects.

The photographs belong to a particular tradition that concerns itself with capturing the black experience in all its visual poetics and politics. Santu Mofokeng and Andrew Tshabangu, come to mind. Their works are concerned with the question of representation, specifically of black people, in a non-mythologized way and in ways that represent their humanity; their aspirations, struggles and joys. In Mlangeni’s case, it is the experience as it relates to spirituality and a sense of belonging. His experience in both churches comes to life on the museums walls as we are thematically moved from the pastoral to the urban.

Mlangeni’s lyrical photographs prompts us to think of belonging, spirituality and intimacy: when does one eventually discover what it means to belong, to revel in that truth and fully embrace it? This is seen in Mlangeni’s photographic journey, though he rarely appears in these images, the camera has assumed his position and perspective, in turn, we find ourselves as partakers in this journey of belonging and spirituality.

By Lesole Tauatswala

Film &  Art  History student at Witwatersrand University,

originally from Limpopo, South Africa

Instagram: @tauatswalalesole


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