Sabelo Mlangeni at Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Gallery
by Sipho Mdand
The black and white and photographic exhibition by Sabelo Mlangeni at Warren Siebrits gallery is more passion than art. Mlangeni, graduate of the Market Photographic Workshop, spent from February to September of 2006 studying, working and documenting municipal workers cleaning the streets of Johannesburg at night. 'Invisible Women' is a meeting of strange characters, women working the streets of Johannesburg. Mlangeni, a newcomer to city life, seems fascinated by its lights, a far cry from his home in Driefontein.
Mlangeni was introduced to photography by an acquaintance whilst still at school. Upon moving to Johannesburg to find work, The Market Photographic Workshop caught his eye while walking the streets in search of employment. He enrolled for a course there, honing his abilities to capture and develop photographs. It is interesting that his initial journeys on foot through Johannesburg's inner city ultimately seem to have informed this body of work, and are certainly reflected in it.
None of the women pictured in Mlangeni's images chose street cleaning as a career: they were forced into it by circumstances. They do this difficult and often thankless job because they need to feed their families. Warren Siebrits' interview with Mlangeni in the show's catalogue reveals that, although some of the cleaners have Grade 12 certificates, their lack of skills has prompted them to seek work as cleaners on the streets of Johannesburg.
The relationship between Mlangeni and the women took time to develop, as at first they did not trust him. This mistrust is understandable: often, photojournalists take images of workers in order to expose poor working conditions, but this frequently backfires, causing more harm than good to some workers. Nonetheless, Mlangeni established a rapport with groups of women and this has resulted in unprecedented access to their routine and experience.
Johannesburg is renowned for its high level of crime. The question uppermost in Mlangeni's mind was, how could the city employ women to work the dangerous nights without escort? He also wanted to know how the women felt doing such work, leaving behind their children and husbands. The difficulty of their circumstances is often visible on their faces, as with MaDlamini (all images 2006).
The women Mlangeni photographed had taken on new roles, working against a schedule normally associated with household chores and looking after their families. They leave their homes as their children arrive from schools and their husbands from work, returning in the morning when all are setting off again. This reversal of roles is the source of tension and strife within the homes as these women are sen to be neglecting their family duties.
Over the eight months of this project, Mlangeni and the women got to know each other very well. He endured some of their hardships along with them, traversing the city together while Mlangeni observed and helped with work to gain their trust. It is this dedication that shines through in the body of work. Scenes of women engaging in physical labour are contrasted with the glow of the street lights at night. The result is the romanticised night skyline, in, for example, Hidden Identity.
The exhibition is divided into three categories: the first shows the piles of garbage, the second the execution of work and the third the worker's departure from the streets at the end of a long night. Mlangeni first introduces us to the aftermath of a typical day in Johannesburg, as trash is strewn across the length and breadth of the city streets. The scene is set for the hardship associated with cleaning the streets. The littered streets call into question the attitude of the entrepreneurs, evident from the excessive amounts of waste that scar the landscape in works like After Dark, Klein Street and Passing Taxi Between Eloff and Kerk Streets.
The second body of work shows the workers cleaning the trash. They arrive, armed with broomsticks and plastic bags to begin cleaning up the mess left behind by entrepreneurs that keep the Johannesburg economy going. The women are shown immersed in the task from all angles, moving through the Johannesburg inner city's economically active sites, like the Bree Street taxi rank where volumes of traders congregate to sell and buy wares. Invisible Woman I, II and III, as well as Umshanelo and Low Prices Daily reveal Mlangeni's interest not only in the stories of these women and the hardships their presence in the city represents, but the actual acts of labour in which they engage. Mlangeni has been sure to capture the movement associated with such labour, revealing the hard nature of this work.
The final set shows workers in various states of rest, going home, leaving a clean and serene city behind. The gloves are off as women take breaks, recharging their energy. Mlangeni has been meticulous in documenting subtle things like the taking of snuff at that odd hour, faces distraught at the sight of a camera man. He also shows them striking poses as they smile, camouflaging the pain that comes with the work.
Mlangeni's work conscientises us to the nature of informal trade and the litter it generates. Whilst the environment is tainted by the invading litter, the 'invisible women' descend on the city streets to embark on the thankless task of cleaning up, so the traders can continue fuelling the economy the next day. The women do not complain; rather they are shown standing tall as conquering heroines of the trash. Nonetheless this body of work avoids romanticising the plight of these women too much. Mlangeni does not shy away from taking photographs that explore the extreme nature of this occupation. Yet it is his empathy with these women and their situation that ultimately makes this exhibition successful.
Opens: October 11
Closes: November 9
Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 327 0000
Hours: Tue - Fri 11am - 6pm, Sat 11am - 3pm