Archive: Issue No. 67, March 2003

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Zwelethu Mthethwa

Zwelethu Mthethwa
Untitled, 2002
Chromogenic print

Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

Zwelethu Mthethwa

Zwelethu Mthethwa
Untitled, 2002
Chromogenic print

Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery



Zwelethu Mthethwa
by Emily Speers Mears

The trouble with Zwelethu Mthethwa's photographs is that, glorious as they are, they seem too posed. The father with his neck tensed slightly back and his arms tensed forward holding his albino son to the camera and away from himself looks unreal because the contrast is too perfect, the thought behind the photograph too mulit-layered. Were there more grubbiness to the photographs - were the models' faces in the multiple copies of the glossy magazines plastered to the walls blemished, were the vivid colours faded, it might be easier to accept that these shots are not staged, that even if they look too good they are striking social commentary and negotiate successfully the thin line between representation and exploitation.

Mthethwa does appear aware of these problems. A brilliant sign above the heads of Tupac Shakur and a young women dressed in high church regalia reads: "FEED YOUR EYES NOT YOUR POCKETS", and another "BE A VISITOR NOT A SPY." The subjects have spoken.

Perhaps this uneasy perfection explains Mthethwa's most recent work, Flex (2002), a black-and-white DVD and thus a significant change of style for the artist. It is also rather brilliant. The camera holds close-up on a young man whose face grimaces in determination as he pushes his body forwards in a steady rhythm. Sweat beads along his forehead; intensely concentrated on his task, his eyes avoid catching the eye of the camera. It is a private moment, the intensity of which is heightened by the silence: the video has no sound. The shot changes to his back, focusing on the steady clench-unclench of the muscles flickering under his skin. The near violence of the boy's movements makes for unsettling viewing. If he is fucking, he's fucking hard.

As the title would suggest, he's weightlifting. Mthethwa is so unashamedly forward in his fetishisation of the young man's body that the charge of the video reflects only on the viewer and forces a questioning of our own responses. (I was turned on, transfixed, and embarrassed by my own transgression of the boy's privacy.) Let's hope this is a new direction for such an energetic South African artist. His portraits are too beautiful, too easy on the eye. With his new work he should be once again confronting our expectations.

Opening: February 13
Closing: March 15

Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011, United States
Tel 212.645.1701
Fax 212.212 645.8316

Emily Speers Mears is a writer and translator living in New York, and a photo editor with Artforum International

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