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The social commentary of Puleng Mongale’s ‘Intimate Strangers’

When the madam is away, the help will slay.

So goes the premise for Intimate Strangers Part 1, a stylised and conceptual photographic project by Puleng Mongale in collaboration with a collection of Jo’burg-based artists.

Puleng Mongale - Intimate Strangers  (15)

Photographed on location outside of an old Jeppestown church, the project is a striking and pertinent social commentary on labour relations in South Africa. Two characters comprise the series – a pair of domestic workers who, quite simply, live their lives. Across a series of stylised images, the two laugh, socialise, and reflect over delicately presented cups of tea. But only when the madams are out of sight. 

Colour is crucial to the series. From the strong blue of a church door and the soft pastels of dresses, to the lush, layered hues of flower petals and the deep, rich reds of a table cloth, each colour has a considered role in the images.  

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Speaking on the process of the series, Puleng explains how it almost never came to be. “The project took on so many forms before it became what it is now. I went from wanting models to be captured strictly through portraits and then I considered video as a medium,” she says. “I also completely abandoned the project at some point because artistic doubt is a real thing, especially since photography is outside of my skill set.”

Later, Puleng teamed up with photographers Kgomotso Neto Tleane and Khotso Bantu Mahlangu and Intimate Strangers Part 1 came to life. Like many striking works, the project finds power in a personal narrative. “I think my prop selection played a great deal in making the shoot relatable to many people,” she explains. “The dinner set I used was handpicked from my mom’s room divider and the outfits for the models were dresses I got from my grandmother who lives in the Free State which she got as hand me downs from one of her madams in her local town.”

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For the second installment of the series, Puleng’s remaining tight-lipped, but she assures it’ll be something worth waiting for. “Part 2 of Intimate Strangers will drop in the first week of September and it’s going to be a bit of a mind fuck because it’s completely different from what we’ve done with When the madam is away, the help will slay.

View Part 1 below and find more by Puleng on her blog.   

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Concept, Styling, Set Design and Directing: Puleng Mongale // Make-up: Nompumelelo Mpumie Ntenteni // Flowers: Vuyiswa Xekatwane (Vava Bloom) // Photography: Khotso Bantu Mahlangu and Kgomotso Neto Tleane // Models: Motsatsing Ntsamai and Motshewa Khaiyane

Between 10 and 5