Zwelethu Mthethwa: Documenting Life on the Edge

A star of the emerging South African photography scene, Zwelethu Mthethwa is widely celebrated for his powerful portraits of poor blacks living and working on the periphery of society. His photographs of colorful beds in hostels for migrant workers and rural settlers in their cardboard and corrugated metal shacks, as well as his pictures of laborers in sugarcane fields, factories, and mining areas, have been shown in galleries and museums around the world. Inner Views, an exhibition currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, brings together three series of his work that explore domestic life under extreme conditions.

The Interior series, begun a year after Apartheid ended in 1994 and continued through 2005, shows the colorful, cobbled together homes of people from rural communities in the outskirts of Cape Town. Made from found materials, the interiors are proudly decorated with pages from magazines and newspapers, scraps of linoleum, painted cardboard, and patterned fabrics. Mthethwa captured his collaborators in the way they wanted to be seen — often returning to take the pictures after they washed and changed clothes. Shot without flash, the occupants reveal their true selves in unique settings of their making.

Empty Beds, a project from 2002, portrays the beds of migrant workers in a variety of hostels in the city of Durban that are colorfully decorated with a feminine touch, despite the fact that men solely inhabit the rooms. Meanwhile, the series Common Ground features photographs of interior spaces in marginalized communities that have been damaged by natural disaster, both in Cape Town and post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana. Homes laying in waste after wildfires and floods become visual metaphors for the social and economic hardships affecting people living on the edge.

Inner Views is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through October 24 and a new book of the artist’s photographs, published by Aperture, is available at

Click through below for a gallery of images and a video interview with the photographer.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled from “Interiors” series, 2001. 70 1⁄2 x 95 inches, chromogenic color print. Private Collection, New York