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Zanele Muholi - retrospectively

Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown (2016) black and white photography
Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown (2016)

It feels odd to write about an exhibition that has ended, but the work of Zanele Muholi is too important not to share - especially after the exhibition at the Tate Modern was cut short by successive lockdowns. Anyone lucky enough to have made it, is no doubt totally wowed. I have rarely seen an exhibition so powerful and moving, an artist so articulate, thoughtful and generous – whose work exudes such dignity, honesty and courage. Nor I have often seen exhibitions so timely and of their time – where the exploration of gender, race, class feels so raw and yet so tender – it transcends the picture. The art work is absolutely stunning – but the lived experiences and how they are captured is sublime.

Zanele Muholi (they/ them/theirs) is a South African visual activist who tells the stories of Black LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Agender, Asexual) persons to raise awareness of injustices, educate and create positive stories of communities that experience ongoing discrimination. Their work is set against the backdrop of post-apartheid years.

"My mission is to re-write a Black, queer and trans visual history of South Africa

for the world to know of our existence, resistance and persistence

at the height of hate crimes in South Africa and beyond.” Zanele Muholi

Aftermath (2004), black and white photography, Zanele Muholi

The first picture in this particular exhibition was Aftermath (2004) - a black and white photo of a woman’s lower torso and legs, her hands clasped over her Jockey shorts, as if to protect her privacy; a long wide scar, from a past wound and trauma, runs down her upper thigh. It is from Muholi’s first series – Only Half the Picture (2002 – 2006), in which they document survivors of hate crimes living across South Africa and its townships – established, under apartheid, as residential areas for those who had been evicted ‘white only’ places. For me, it set the tone of the exhibition because it says so much about the relationship Muholi has with their participants – the trust and respect, but also the depth and seriousness of the issues they photograph – the trauma. Nothing is gratuitous.

From then on – every series presented at the exhibition is still ‘ongoing’ – something I found quite remarkable – in that it shows how ‘participants’ (which is actually how they are called because the process is fully collaborative) in Muholi’s work are part of a community, and together they are re-framing the evolving story of the South African LGBTQIA+ movement. The portraits in Being (2006 – ongoing) depict moments of intimacy as well as daily routine – and in the process defy and dismantle the white patriarchal gaze and reject negative or heteronormative imagery, common in political and social systems that uphold heterosexuality as the norm or default sexual orientation.

Brave Beauties (2014 - ongoing) , Durban beach, Zanele Muholi
Brave Beauties, Durban beach (2014 - ongoing)

A big part of that work includes making LGBTQIA+ communities more visible through queering public spaces – and occupying them, like in the above picture taken on Durban beach – beaches were segregated during apartheid. Presented in life size dimension at the exhibition, it filled the room with colour, light and confidence, introducing Brave Beauties (2014 – ongoing), a series of portraits of trans women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people – many are also beauty pageant contestants. LGBTQIA+ people may have gained equal rights in South Africa in 1998 – but the stigma and violence remain a daily reality. By recording the existence of Black LGBTQIA+ community, Muholi and their large network of collaborators actively resist its erasure.

It is important to mark, map and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories

for reference and prosperity so that future generations will note that we were here

Zanele Muholi

Faces and Phases (2006 - ongoing) black and white photography Zanele Muholi
Faces and Phases (2006 - ongoing)

Then comes Faces and Phases (2006 – ongoing) – a poignant series of 500+ works, to date, which celebrates, commemorates and archives the lives of Black lesbians, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. There is something so beautifully personal about each of the picture – a profound complicity in the relationship between Muholi and each individual in the photo, as they look you in the eye, proudly hold your gaze.

Bester I, Mayotte (2015), Somnyama Ngonyama, black and white photography, Zanel Muholi
Bester I, Mayotte (2015)

And finally, in Somnyama Ngonyama (2012 – ongoing) - which translates to ‘Hail The Dark Lioness’ from their mother tongue isiZulu - Muholi uses auto-portraiture to explore their ancestry, as well as the politics of race and representation of Black people in a white supremacist system. The photographs refer to personal reflections and stories, many include materials and objects from their surrounding environment – all are a representation of colonial and apartheid histories of exclusion and displacement, of going racism. Like the above image, Bester I, Mayotte, in which Muholi wears a crown of washing pegs - a reference to their mother, a domestic worker who supported her family of eight – single-handedly. Under apartheid people of colour were relegated to low wage, unskilled jobs – by law!

All of this and much more to learn more about Zanele Muholi.


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