If you are in NYC and you’re quick on your feet you might just make it to Zwelethu Mthethwa’s artist’s talk tonight. Followed by a reception and book signing at Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn (begins at 6.30pm).

Mthethewa’s work will be on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem until October.


Afro-Pessimism is a term introduced by Okwui Enwezor (for the essay of Mthethwa’s monograph) in an attempt to describe what Zwelethu Mthethwa’s art is not.

I had dozens of working titles for this blog post each one reflecting an approach (and/or quote) by Mthethwa which described his process, his collaboration with the sitter, the waves of culture in which we exist, whether poverty in photography is a problem for the practitioner or audience, etc, etc. These topics are too huge for a title of course, fortunately there’s plenty of wonderful online videos and chances to hear Mthethwa talk about his art:

Aperture (who are publishing his first monograph) has a four-part interview, Zwelethu Mthethwa: In Conversation with Okwui Enwezor.

The Mail & Guardian has a narrated slideshow, “I hope when people look at these images they are honest and open to learning new things.”

Dazed and Confused visited Mthethwa in his studio, which is a fascinating look at his work space. A great painter as well as a great photographer!


For the SFMoMA ‘Is Photography Over Symposium’, Okwui Enwezor leans on Mthethwa’s work to ask, “How do diverse cultural practices engage with the legacy of photography?”:

“Before foreclosing the effectiveness of photography or to ask whether we have reached the end of photography, we should address the diverse manifestations of photography in societies in transition where its powerful effects of seeing is constantly battling different logics and apparatuses of opacity. All through the years of apartheid, photography was at the center of this battle between transparency and opacity, thus lending the medium a far more discursive possibility than it would have enjoyed as purely an instrument of art. One can in fact, argue, pace Georges Didi-Huberman, that in the context of apartheid photography was an instrument of cogito.”

“In South Africa, for the critics of documentary realism or anthropological realism, especially black artists such as Mthethwa, documentary realism was always at the ready to link the iconic and the impoverished with little recourse to examining its spectral effects on social lives. Because of this, documentary realism generated an iconographic landscape that trafficked in simplifications, in which moral truths were posited without the benefit of proven ethical engagement.”

From what I can gather Georges Didi-Huberman’s thesis is that images are killed, denied their truth, narrative or violence within the dominant art historical canon that has elevated the image to art. The image becomes cogito – an object of thought – not an object pertaining to reality or even to action.

Mthethwa’s images are against such failings; they are attempts at transparency, honesty. Mthethwa talks in the interviews about his ethical and slow engagement with his subjects.

Afro-Pessimism is on the decline.


Zwelethu Mthethwa (born in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 1960) received his BFA from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, a then–whites-only university he entered under special ministerial consent. He received his master’s degree while on a Fulbright Scholarship to the Rochester Institute of Technology. Mthethwa has had over thirty-five international solo exhibitions and has been featured in numerous group shows, including the 2005 Venice Biennale and Snap Judgments at the International Center of Photography, New York. Mthethwa is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.