In just over a century, Zionism has taken off across southern Africa to become one of the region’s most influential religious groups, with some 15 million members. Later this month, a new exhibition opens at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg which gives new insight into South Africa’s flourishing Zionist churches.
Titled Umlindelo wamaKholwa ‘The night vigils of the believers’, a new exhibition features the work of multiple prize-winning and internationally exhibited Johannesburg-based photographer Sabelo Mlangeni. The title of the exhibition refers to the all-night prayer vigils – imilindelo – held by the Zionist churches, during which the community gathers together to pray, worship and sing.
During the colonial period, people were often attracted to the Independent churches because of the discriminatory policies and practices of the mission churches. For example, mission churches would not ordain African priests.
Mlangeni is himself a member of a Zionist church and knows many of his photographic subjects; the exhibition reflects his exploration of belonging and identity, of faith and friendship. The photographs were taken in Driefontein and Johannesburg, and often reflect the importance of nature and the outdoors in Zionist belief.
“As a church member, Mlangeni complicates the boundary between observer and subject, showing his insider perspective of the church,” says the show’s curator, Kabelo Malatsie.
The exhibition stems from a collaboration between Sabelo Mlangeni and Dr Joel Cabrita, a historian based at the University of Cambridge. Cabrita’s new book (The People’s Zion: Southern Africa, the United States and a Transatlantic Faith-Healing Movement, Harvard University Press, 2018) tells the story of Zionism as a Protestant faith healing movement brought to South Africa by American missionaries in 1904.
“WAM is delighted to be able to host this show by an artist who is making a critical contribution to contemporary South African photography,” says Lesley Cohen, Wits Art Museum.