CHICAGO — In the United States, the idea of a rural gay community may bring to mind snapshots from the 2006 documentary Small Town Gay Bar, which captures the goings-on of two gay bars in the rural Deep South. Historically, the gay bar has been a community gathering spot, a place where queers can socialize and be themselves, and enjoy the lubrication provided by alcoholic beverages. Another association with rural gay is the more communal, loosely organized worldwide network of Radical Faeries, a group of mostly gay-identified men — though it’s still very queer in nature — that have sanctuaries in rural spots. For example, there’s one in Short Mountain, Tennessee, and another in Zuni Mountain, New Mexico. Both the small-town gay bar and the Radical Faerie sanctuary are constructed rural environments: Without careful planning and someone to fund them, they wouldn’t happen.
Johannesburg-based South African artist Sabelo Mlangeni‘s photographs of rural gay communities in South Africa are about as far as you can get from the American film Small Town Gay Bar. His photos depict a celebratory, positive, and campy-funny queer life in the countryside. Curated by Chicago-raised, New York-based artist Carrie Schneider, who met Mlangeni while at a visiting artist lecturer at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria. This exhibition is the South African artist’s first solo show in the United States. Working in black-and-white photography, Mlangeni captures rich moments that represent strength and pride, but not in a cheesy, Pride-parade kinda way. Every image is full of both heavy queer signifiers and quiet, tender same-sex moments. His work depicts an otherwise unseen, but not closeted, slice of South African life. This cohesive body of work is both thoughtfully and meditatively constructed by an artist who understands and respects this world.
Shot over the course of six years from 2003 to 2009, these images are a non-voyeuristic peek into a world that the artist knows well, having grown up in the Mpumalanga province town of Driefontein, one of locations of these photos. He shot in the towns of Ermelo, Bethal, Platrand, Piet Retief, Standerton, and Secunda as well. These towns are run by mining, agriculture, forestry, and power stations fueled by coal. The people depicted in these photos are not well to do; life here is difficult, and people are poor. But this isn’t overtly apparent in the tone of these photographs.
In “Kgomotso, Palm Dove Lodge, Ermelo” (2008), a slightly blurred photo catches a man deep in thought, wearing a wig while dipping his hands in a hairwashing basin. For gays living in this region, hairstyling is one of the more common professions. The handsome Kgomotso appears again in “Kgomotso and his three days date” (2008) (seen above), a tender snapshot of him and another young man in a backyard setting. Kgomotso is shirtless. His date holds a clear plastic bag of white towels in his left hand, and rubs Kgomotso’s head with a towel that he holds in his right hand.
Other photographs in this series depict men out having fun, such as “Bhansi and Madlisa dancing at the 60s party” (2003) and “Nkululeko and friend from Durban” (2003). At first glance, the couple appears to be a man and a woman, but in both pictures, a closer look reveals queerness — the hairy belly of a man peeks out from underneath his beautiful drag queen attire. “Bafana Mhlanga and his soccer star boyfriend” (2009) depict two men lying fully clothed on a bed in a room with exposed brick walls. Their playful smiles suggest that they’ll soon be enjoying each other, probably after the photographer exits the scene.
Mlangeni brings these happy moments of gay life to the fore, leaving the viewer wondering why the artist stopped shooting these country girls after 2009, and if he will again return to these rural lands where he first experienced his own queerness.
Sabelo Mlangeni’s Country Girls runs at Iceberg Projects (7714 North Sheridan Road, East Roger’s Park, Chicago) through December 16.