Glamour and grittiness combine in Sabelo Mlangeni's Country Girls series, an intimate portrait of gay life in the countryside. Mlangeni took the photographs in small towns and rural areas in the Mpumalanga province. Driefontein, Ermelo, Bethal, Piet Retief, Standerton and Sekunda - nodes of mining, agriculture, forestry, and coal-fed power stations.
These can be bleak environments where, by and large, township life is rough and poor. But there is also glamour here. Mlanageni brings us images of drag queens, hairstylists at work and beauty pageant contestants parading in an unadorned municipal hall. These are scenes of aspiration, of making do, fashioning a dream from what is available.
Fashion and gay life go hand in hand in Mpumalanga. In fact it is not uncommon to hear of gay lifestyles referred to, with some disapproval, as 'a fashion', a modern phenomenon. To some, gays are seen as un-African, un-Christian or the unfortunate by-product of a liberal constitution. But, as the photographs vividly demonstrate, this is only a small part of the story. Gays have also carved spaces for themselves in these unlikely places where they work, love, worship and find community. Gays are both visible and vulnerable, an assertive presence in places that can be accepting or hostile.
The photographs in the Country Girl series were taken over a period of six years, from 2003 to 2009. Mlangeni grew up in Driefontein, and he is an insider in this community. His photographs are glimpses of the everyday - whether a passionate conversation, camping it up, posing in a pageant, praying and worshipping, or a figure in a doorway, on the threshold of a new day. Mlangeni provides the viewer with a sharp, incisive insight into gay life in the South African countryside.
Reid is a lecturer in LGBT Studies at Yale University. An expanded version of this text is included in the Country Girls catalogue (see Publications).
© 2009 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.