Documenting San Francisco’s Black churches

Visiting artist collaboration explores San Francisco’s Black churches

A fall quarter collaboration between Stanford historian Joel Cabrita and photographer Sabelo Mlangeni explores religion, identity, and community.

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Video by Taylor Jones

Sabelo Mlangeni, a South African photographer, was Stanford’s Denning Visiting Artist in the fall of 2023. He and history professor Joel Cabrita collaborated on a project examining the transnational link between Southern African religion and African American church communities in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco.

The paths of South African photographer Sabelo Mlangeni and Stanford historian Joel Cabrita have been intentionally crisscrossing for over a decade. Their latest convergence lasted the whole fall quarter and furthered their mutual interests in community, religion, and identity.

Mlangeni was Stanford’s Denning Visiting Artist in the fall of 2023, hosted by the Department of History in collaboration with the Center for African Studies with funding from the Stanford Visiting Artist Fund in Honor of Roberta Bowman Denning.

Mlangeni participated with Cabrita in a Photography Network symposium and the African Studies Association Conference during his residency. On numerous occasions, he also talked to students and public audiences about his artistic practice of capturing the complex cultural identities in contemporary South African society. An exhibition of his photographs of members of the African Zionism movement, a Christian practice unrelated to Jewish nationalism, at the Cantor Arts Center titled Imvuselelo: The revival closes on Sunday, Jan. 21. A virtual tour is on the Cantor website.

Cabrita is a historian of modern Southern Africa who focuses on Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and South Africa, and she is the Susan Ford Dorsey Director of the Center for African Studies. Cabrita is an associate professor at Stanford and also a senior research associate in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Her fall course, Curating the Image: African Photography and the Politics of Exhibitions, co-taught by Christina Linden, the director of academic and public programs at the Cantor, was built around Sabelo’s Imvuselelo exhibition at the Cantor. Cabrita’s winter course, African Studies II: Who Owns the Past? African Museum Collections in the Bay Area, also draws on Imvuselelo.

In addition to inviting Mlangeni into her classroom in the fall, Cabrita accompanied Mlangeni on visits to historically Black churches in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco to document the religious spaces and start building relationships with the church leaders.

Cabrita hopes their research and connections will be the basis of a community-engaged learning course offered through Cabrita’s second departmental home, the Department of African and African American Studies. She imagines students working closely alongside church communities to record, archive, and narrate their institutional and social histories of Black religion in San Francisco.

Cabrita is confident that her path will continue to intersect with Mlangeni’s. She is keen to deepen their collaboration with the San Francisco churches and has already started interviewing church members and digging into archival and newspaper research. “Our goal is to think creatively and expansively about what a photographer-historian collaboration might look like and what distinctive contributions we can each bring to this project whilst retaining a close focus on, and respectful consultation with, the historic San Francisco community we are working with.”

For Mlangeni, his African Zionism photographs are headed to Chicago as a nod of recognition to the historic roots of Southern African Zionism in Illinois, particularly in the small town of Zion, just north of Chicago.

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