Amakholwa ('The Believers'): Photography, Religion and Society in Contemporary South Africa

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Divinity


Against the backdrop of the dramatic social and economic divides characterizing contemporary South Africa, my research on Zionist Christianity offers the South African public an in-depth example of religion's role in pioneering equitable societies. My AHRC Fellowship examines the democratic resources of a transatlantic Protestant faith healing movement called Zionism. I show that in both the United States and South Africa, the Zionist church has been favoured by working-class individuals marginalized by those in power and who, in their conversion to Zionism, found new possibilities for self-assertion. For example, its doctrine encouraged adherents to eschew the expertise of medical professionals in favour of the simple prayer of ordinary people. By the early twentieth century, Zionism had been transmitted to South Africa via American missionaries. Its teachings regarding the equality of all humanity - regardless of race, class or education - meant Zionism found great success amongst black South Africans seeking to claim status and dignity amidst the strictures of a racially segregated state. While the movement declined in the USA, Zionism is today South Africa's largest religious group, with over 12 million believers. I argue Zionism continues to powerfully shape visions of egalitarian society within contemporary South Africa.
While conducting research in South Africa, I encountered the prize-winning photographer, Sabelo Mlangeni, himself a life-long Zionist believer. Over the past year, Mlangeni and I have developed a proposal for a photographic exhibition at the renowned Wits Art Museum (WAM) in Johannesburg, displaying Mlangeni's 60 black and white photographs on contemporary Zionists. The exhibition will be entitled Amakholwa, isiZulu for 'The Believers'. The photographs foreground the intimate, affectionate ties between Zionist believers. Mlangeni uses close-up perspectives and full-frontal portraits to portray the bonds of support between fellow believers. These photographs also emphasize the egalitarian nature of Zionist community; they depict 'the believers' as a group of people amongst whom clerical hierarchies are largely invisible. The overall sense is of a horizontal gathering of young men and women. In this way, Mlangeni's photographs engage with my research's exploration of the importance of religious affiliation in transcending social divides by reconstituting individuals as 'believers', erasing former divisions of class, ethnicity and socio-economic status.
In conversation with WAM, the project partner, I have identified four user communities who will benefit from creatively engaging them with the exhibition and the research underpinning it. These include 1000 secondary school students, 200 Zionist believers, 40 photography students and at least 3000 members of the Johannesburg public. With respect to the school audience, we have identified a need for high-quality discourse on the role of Zionism in the public sphere as this is largely absent from religious education curricula. The second audience - Zionist believers - would benefit from a visual representation of their religious identity by an 'insider' voice such as Mlangeni. Zionists' knowledge of their origins would be enhanced through their engagement with the exhibition's text panels and the catalogue. Photography students in South Africa need teaching on the intersection between photographic practice and depiction of religious life, while the South African public would benefit from thoughtful commentary on the significance of religious communities such as Zionism (which receives little coverage in the national media) for transcending social divides. These four audiences will be engaged via walk-arounds, a photography workshop and participation in religious rituals dynamically interacting with the exhibition. Audiences' engagement will be assessed through follow-up questionnaires, focus groups and media monitoring.

Planned Impact

First, WAM will use its established relationships with Johannesburg's education sector to identify 17 secondary schools (1000 students) to undertake expenses-paid half-day trips to the exhibition. These numbers have been calculated by reference to WAM's prior organization of educational outreach. While South African schools have robust Religious Studies curricula, there is currently no teaching material on the transformative social potential of popular religious movements like Zionism. Second, in consultation with Zionist ministers I have already engaged with during my AHRC Fellowship, I have identified 120 Zionists as a user community, many who are also subjects of Mlangeni's photographs. This group will be targeted because of the ethical importance of engaging living photographic subjects. Exposure to the exhibition will also enhance their historic and cultural knowledge of their origins and identity. The third user group are students at Johannesburg's Market Photo Workshop, an institution providing photographic training to disadvantaged learners. I have identified a need to equip photographic students with skills in visually portraying the country's rich religious heritage. The fourth group are Johannesburg's general public. I have selected this group because of the value of public education regarding Zionist Christianity as a little-understood yet vital aspect of South African society, especially at the present turbulent juncture in national life.
Secondary school visitors will view the exhibition with the artist, Mlangeni, who will conduct students on walk-arounds, and he and I will lead Q&As. Students will receive a booklet featuring photographs from the exhibition, points of reflection and space to write their own comments during their visit or afterwards. Teachers will receive take-home teaching material to ensure the dissemination of the exhibition and my research to future students. Each school will also receive two free exhibition catalogues. Follow-up questionnaires will be designed, distributed and analysed by the educational intern and myself.
Zionists will be engaged through activities that encourage reflection on issues surrounding the photographic representation of private religious practice, and the resources, and limitations, of their faith tradition for pioneering equitable societies in South Africa. The exhibition's opening ceremony will place Zionist religious practice centre-stage, featuring 120 Zionists for an all-night church service. Follow-up discussion will ask how the exhibition (and its catalogue, which will be supplied to churches free-of-charge as a permanent resource) has transformed participants' understanding of their churches' pursuit of egalitarian, democratic communities, including the topic of LGBT church members.
Photography students will be invited to a one-day workshop. This will be designed and run by the artist, Mlangeni, in consultation with myself. Mlangeni will address artistic and ethical issues involved in photographers' engagement with religious communities in South Africa. As a follow-up assignment, attendees will photograph a religious community and subsequently have one-on-one meetings with Mlangeni for feedback. Six months later, I will request participants to complete questionnaires detailing the impact of the workshop upon their photographic practice.
The general public will be engaged through informative text panels accompanying the photographs. They will be targeted via the catalogue (in both English and isiZulu), available at both the exhibition and subsequently deposited at strategic public resource centres throughout the city. A public panel discussion will be hosted at WAM, at which will speakers from religious, political and non-governmental sectors of the city. Attendance will be free, and the event will be broadly publicized on media platforms. Public impact will be assessed through museum entry procedure, and media monitoring and analysis.


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Description My research analyses and explains the importance of Zionism - the largest Christian movement in Southern Africa with 12 million members - in shaping the religious, cultural and social history and identity of South Africa. Zionism is frequently ignored both by scholars and the wider public; by contrast, my work argues that focusing on this religious movement generates far more nuanced awareness of the different communities that have historically constituted South African society. I chose to collaborate with Sabelo Mlangeni - a young South African photographer who is also a committed Zionist believer - in order to create a visually powerful and easily accessible medium with which to communicate the significance of this religious movement to audiences in South Africa and the UK , especially focusing on the perspective of an insider to the church. Through two photographic exhibitions of Mlangeni's work in Cambridge, UK and Johannesburg, South Africa and a wide range of associated outreach activities in both cities, my research has made a major contribution to educating publics about the religious and social impact of Zionism upon ordinary South Africans such as Mlangeni. The impact has been three-fold: 1) The exhibitions have created increased social and cultural awareness by deepening public understanding of Zionism in both the UK and South Africa. 2) The exhibitions have informed the arts and enriched artistic professional practice by providing artists and artistic institutions in South Africa and the UK with new inspiration for their own portrayals of religious communities. 3) They have contributed to enhanced community cohesiveness by supplying Zionist individuals and groups in South Africa with material for reflection on their own origins and identity.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal