Sabelo Mlangeni – The Tea Factory (Liverpool Biennial 2012)

The relationship between photographer and subject has been the go to for a handful of the work aiming to interpret and question the theme of hospitality.  One of the more subtle of these excursions can be found in The Tea Factory; one venue entirely dedicated to the photographic work of South African artist Sabelo Mlangeni.  The empty and desolate space is devoid of colour, exactly like the work and the solitary, lonely volunteer that has to invigilate there no doubt shares some common feelings with the photographic subjects which seem distant, sparse and isolated by the four walls of the photographs.

The small exhibition consists of two collections.  The first is Men Only and the second is My Storie (sic) yet the two seem relatively similar with their dynamics and visual choices being of an auteur quality.  Exploring the idea of the outsider element when venturing to a place, the pictures depict all sorts of everyday and almost mundane aspects of life, yet the portraits in particular seem to have an element of hostility to the photographer with eyes firing out daggers to both him and the viewer.

Some of the photos seem blurred, almost as if they were taken in a hurry.  Perhaps implying that the photographer had to rush to avoid any reaction from the people, the pictures seem to have captured something that didn’t necessarily want to be caught in a moment.  The pictures are uncomfortable but there are enough them to keep a steady flow of viewing meaning that this weight isn’t pressed onto the viewer’s shoulders for too long a time.

Mlangeni’s photos are more than a piece of documentation or even a piece of art.  They are the feeling of a moment, captured and brought to life.  The feeling of a territory being defined and one that isn’t welcoming for those outside its walls.  Not only is the guest unexpected it’s also highly debatable whether they’re actually even welcome at all.

Adam Scovell

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