Critics’ Picks

Zwelethu Mthethwa, untitled, 2008, color photograph, 59 x 76 1/2”. From the series “Common Ground,” 2008.

New York

Zwelethu Mthethwa

The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
July 15 - October 24

Isolating one motif from a broader body of work by Zwelethu Mthethwa, this exhibition brings together his pictures of domestic interiors. Nearly all the large-scale color photographs on display were taken in shacks and hostels inhabited by migrant workers living at the edges of South African townships. For example, the “Interiors” series, 1995–2005, consists of portraits of individuals and occasionally a pair of what seem to be brothers, sisters, or cousins, in their lodgings. The deliberate poses, formal dress, and attention to pattern all draw on the studio portraiture of earlier African photographers such as Seydou Keïta. At the same time, the small, sparsely furnished rooms recall photos of sharecroppers by Walker Evans. But the barren, almost denuded wood grain walls of Evans’s Farm Security Administration pictures are here replaced with the colorful bricolage of wallpaper improvised from cast-off newspaper ads or scavenged posters. Amid their spare but carefully arranged interiors, the sitters gaze directly at the camera, further manifesting the desire and agency with which they fashion their homes, and themselves.

The series “Empty Beds,” 2002, catalogues neatly made beds in similar domestic spaces but vacant of people. As objects, the beds suggest transience and absence, qualities perhaps overlooked in Mthethwa’s previous portraits—but evident, for example, in a man’s suit jacket and necktie hanging on the wall behind a reclining pregnant woman. Indexing more permanent displacement, the series “Common Ground,” 2008, pairs interiors of flooded houses in post-Katrina New Orleans with migrant workers’ quarters destroyed by wildfire in Cape Town, without telling the viewer which is which. However, only three images from the series are included here, blunting the polemical point of an extended side-by-side comparison. The mud-splattered wall and glass window gridded with red tape instead contribute to an aesthetics of modernist, painterly surfaces, abstractions torn from the specific places that orient documentary photography and its politics.