Liverpool Biennial 2012:
The Tea Factory (4)

Art  As is so frequently the case with these curious missions, attempting to apply order invariably still leads to some chaos.  There are still some museums or art galleries in the north-west which are still not quite appraised because they were closed for renovation when I visited.  Many Hamlets have been too far out of geographical reach.  In 2010 I never did quite manage to see the Raymond Pettibon piece.  So imagine my lack of surprise, having chosen to visit the Biennial venues in the official map key's numerical order, as I stood in front of the shutters at number four on the list, The Tea Factory, understandably closed because of a cracked window, lights off, unpersoned.  Fortunately, some of the photographs are available online, so I have at least been given a taste of what lies within.

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In a surprising coincidence, it’s the nature of the “outsider” and the distance which separates a photography and his subjects which underpins Sabelo Mlangeni’s Men Only, the railings and glass separating this visitor from his photography.  Mlangeni is a South African documentary photographer whose subjects are as diverse as the countryside gay community and abandoned or ghost towns.  As the Biennial pamphlet explains “his images focus on the grey area between opposing forces, such as acceptance and discrimination” both of which he experienced when he moved from his birthplace at Driefontein near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga to Johannesburg in 2001.

The one photograph I was able to see clearly is from the Men Only series.  Man Tehuis features two males, one wearing a leather jacket, the other a shirt, both open revealing their chests, outside the George Goch hostel on the East Rand of Johannesburg.  As the photographer's website explains, the artist spent a few weeks at the hostel, living with and shooting the routines of the inhabitants.  Although originally opened in 1961 to house migrant mineworkers, the hostel is now used by new arrivals in Jozi working their first jobs as taxi drivers or security guards.  Only male residents are allowed and they all predominantly have a black population underscoring that some elements of apartheid are still in evidence.

One of the men grins at us, a cigarette in his hand.  The way his other hand links with the other man we might assume that they’re gay but it’s impossible to know for certain.  Along with the other photos in the sequence we are able to see just how close the artist came to the residents as he’s able to capture what seem like appalling conditions not unlike British slums and workhouses, people living in rooms also akin to modern prisons.  That this man is able to smile is a surprise, though like a prison these men are living hand in glove and so at least have the comfort of human companionship however intrusive that may be.  Perhaps Mlangeni’s showing us that sometimes, we’re not “outsiders” for very long.

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