Zanele Muholi

Philippe Dumaine
  • Zanele Muholi, from the series Faces and Phases, since 2006. Photos: © Zanele Muholi
  • Zanele Muholi, from the series Beulahs, 2006-2010. Photo: © Zanele Muholi
  • Zanele Muholi, from the series Beulahs, 2006-2010. Photo: © Zanele Muholi
  • Zanele Muholi, from the series Beulahs, 2006-2010. Photo: © Zanele Muholi
  • Zanele Muholi, from the series Somnyama Ngonyama, since 2012. Photos: © Zanele Muholi

Visual Activism

Zanele Muholi’s impressive photo series Faces and Phases, which she began in 2006, now comprises over 250 black-and-white portraits of black lesbians and trans people, in South Africa and elsewhere. Wanting to counteract her community’s absence from (art) history, Muholi documents individuals who together constitute a constantly evolving visual archive that tends to make representations of identity more complex, rather than circumscribe them.

The honesty that exudes from the portraits in Faces and Phases testifies to the artist’s documentary intention and reveals the relational character of her work. Far from scenic aestheticization, these photographs are the material traces of exchanges, of encounters between the artist and her participants, of connections that go beyond the photo shoot. The project is thus articulated around shared experiences of the oppression and struggle, as well as joy, that queer life entails.

Considering her work a form of visual activism, Muholi wishes above all to celebrate the strength and resilience of queer and lesbian communities as they resist normative pressure. In Beulahs (2006–10), she captures the beauty and freedom of gay and trans men whose flamboyant attire contrasts with hostile spaces. These portraits allow us to imagine other futures, other lives outside the structures and narratives imposed by racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic society. They testify to multivalent identities, whose affirmation calls upon systems of representation to fully embrace the breadth of reality.

Turning the camera toward her own body in the Somnyama Ngonyama series (2012–ongoing series), Muholi interrogates the history of photographic representations of black women. She heightens the contrast in the image to accentuate her pigmentation and reimagines the uses of everyday objects in order to conjure moments of South Africa’s recent history or to embody archetypes. Produced abroad, during travels that have punctuated an international career, her self-portraits suggest a disorientation while confronting a colonial gaze that seeks to extend ethnological practices as it pursues traces of exotic authenticity in the African woman.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

Captions
Images 1-2: Zanele Muholi, Manucha Muizenberg, Cape Town, 2010; Nosipho Solundwana Parktown Johannesburg 2007 from the series Faces and Phases, since 2006. Photos: © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg & Yancey Richardson, New York
Image 3: Zanele Muholi, Mini Mbatha,Durban, Glenelands, Jan. 2010, from the series Beulahs, 2006-2010. Photo: © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg & Yancey Richardson, New York
Image 4: Zanele Muholi, Jabu Radebe, from the series Beulahs, 2006-2010. Photo: © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg & Yancey Richardson, New York
Image 5: Zanele Muholi, Black Beulah, 2006, from the series Beulahs, 2006-2010. Photo: © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg & Yancey Richardson, New York
Images 6-7 : Zanele Muholi, Bester I, Mayotte, 2015, 2006; Sibusiso, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy, 2015, from the series Somnyama Ngonyama, since 2012. Photos: © Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg & Yancey Richardson, New York

Number: 
91

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