Zwelethu Mthethwa

Article Bio Merits Projects Images
Visual Arts (painting, photography)
Africa, Southern
South Africa
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June 22, 2003
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Poverty need be no indignity

Zwelethu Mthethwa is one of the best known artists of the middle generation in South Africa. Born in Durban in 1960, he began his career as a painter and photographer during apartheid and first gained recognition toward the end of the 80s after a Fulbright scholarship had enabled him to move to Rochester in the USA. He became internationally known through vivid pastels and photo series of dwellers in poor settlements.
A woman is standing in a room – her whole home, and at the upper edge of the photo are to be seen rough wooden lattices roofing the hut. The walls are papered white with a fine pattern of flowers, which in places bulges, betraying it on closer examination to be only paper substitute. Also to be seen is a table decked with a cloth, a fridge whose holes are hidden by white lace, and a few pictures, a bench and three of four potted plants. The woman wears a freshly washed and smoothly ironed blue apron and on her head a crocheted white bonnet. The photo is memorable owing to the look with which the woman meets the viewer – a look wavering between pride and self-assurance, vulnerability, uncertainty and thirst for appreciation.

The photo entitled ´Untitled´ is also from Zwelethu Mthethwa and belongs to a series which this South African painter and photographer has been making since 1998 about the dwellers in Paari, a settlement spreading about 60 km east of Cape Town. In the photos it appears not as a shabby shanty town but as peopled by migrants from inland with little money but dignity, dreams, yearnings and a persistent will to happiness.

Photos like these are typical of the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa, who for some years has been one of the best known and internationally esteemed artists from South Africa. Born in Durban in 1960 he there went to the Open School, which had been founded privately and was one of the few in the land to offer blacks a chance to be educated in the fine arts. This led to his being one of the few blacks in the era of apartheid to go on to the Michaelis School of Fine Art at Cape Town University, where he then gained a diploma in 1985.

In 1989 Zwelethu Mthethwa was awarded a Fulbright scholarship which enabled him to visit the Institute of Technology in Rochester in the USA, then on his return to South Africa and his former college in Cape Town, he was appointed as a lecturer then a research associate in 1998.

Zwelethu Mthethwa considers painting and photography to be equally important and is continually transferring notions from the one to the other field. In his photos the persons portrayed are as carefully positioned and the forms and hues as strictly composed as the parts of an abstract painting. On the other hand his vivid paintings and pastels recall photographs or film stills. Many folk who, like Zwelethu Mthethwa, were born in or around 1960 grew up with television, so his paintings seem to have been influenced by sequential perception in often having a near, middle and far distance more juxtaposed than merged, as if viewed in series.

In recent years Zwelethu Mthethwa´s works may have been shown in more exhibitions than those of any other South African artist, having been shown in museums and galleries in the USA, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Author: Ulrich Clewing


1960 born in Durban
1984 a diploma in the fine arts at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town (UCT)
1989 a Master of Fine Arts in Imaging Art at the Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., in the USA
1994-98 lecturer in photography and drawing at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts, UCT
1998-2000 senior lecturer, Michaelis School of Fine Arts, UCT
Since 2000 research associate, Michaelis School of Fine Arts, UCT


1981 Simon Gerson Prize (UCT)
1985 Irma Stern Scholarship
1987 Fulbright Scholarship
1993 City of Abidjan Prize, Abidjan Biennale, Abidjan
1995 Vice-Chairman of the S.A. Association of Arts, Western Cape


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)
Work: Title Unknown, South Africa 1995-1996
Work: Title Unknown, South Africa