Zanele Muholi Could Not Be More Relevant If She Tried

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Absolutely breathtaking, powerful, beautiful, visually striking, and so utterly important in today’s milieus of self-representation and socio-cultural movements.

This week I had the greatest pleasure of attending a lecture featuring world-renowned photographer Zanele Muholi at New York University’s Gallatin Galleries. I had stumbled upon about this talk on a poster pinned up inside an academic building while waiting for class to begin. I had studied Muholi in class before and had been instantly captured by her striking images and powerful portrayal of the stories of South African women, specifically black lesbian women. The presentation had been stunning and the talk was beyond illuminating; the event was concurrent with Gallatin’s current show Zanele Muholi: Zinathi.

Bester V, Mayotte, 2015 - 9257-LR

Muholi self identifies as a black lesbian and a visual activist.

She was born in 1972 in Umlazi township in Durban, South Africa; she currently lives in Johannesburg. Before her photographic career took off she worked as a human/lesbian rights activist, as a reporter for the LGBTI website Behind the Mask, and co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) as well as Inkanyiso, an organization dedicated to queer visual arts, activism, media, and advocacy.

The lecture began with the presentation of a short film (2013) from the Human Rights Watch with whom Muholi collaborated with. The revealing film explores her work, speaks to the pressing issues surrounding homosexuality in South Africa, and marked the start of the global campaign—16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

Lebo Leptie Phume Daveyton Johannesburg 2013-LR

Working almost exclusively in black and white film, Muholi creates powerful images that confront the viewer and simultaneously tell a story, always seeking to educate. Gallatin’s current exhibition, entitled Zinathi, brings together new works from two series Faces and Phases and Somnyama Ngonyama. Zinathi is a Zulu expression that means “All races, nations, communities and cultures” have LGBTI individuals.

The works from Faces and Phases focus on portraits of black lesbians and trans men surrounding Muholi within her community in South Africa. This continuous series began in 2006 as a visual project and has turned into an unprecedented archive of photographs documenting the community and the country. Stretching until today, Muholi has revisited a number of these women, re-capturing them at different stages in their lives. Her intent is “to fill a gap in South Africa’s visual history that, even 10 years after the fall of apartheid, wholly excluded our very existence,” (Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases 2006-14, 2014).

Lesedi Modise Mafikeng North West 2010-LR

These women stand proud and defiant in front of the camera. Most are portraits and the rest are shot from the waist up. Muholi made a point throughout her lecture to mention that she made sure that all of these women “looked good,” as in clean, put together, with fresh haircuts—because she is tired of seeing the same images of Africans perpetuated throughout the media. These are ones of poverty, sickness, uncleanliness, and extreme desperation, ones that provoke pity. However, these archetypes are not her or her community’s reality. She wishes to uplift these women and present them as members of society worthy to be celebrated, respected, and documented within history. Each woman stands in front of a different background and has a unique way of interacting with the camera, of interacting with Muholi. She has developed relationships with almost all of these women; they trust her and have shared their stories with her. Many of these narratives revolve around the unrelenting hardship of living as a lesbian woman in South Africa as well as other countries where African leaders have criminalized homosexuality and publicly projected hate speech while doing very little to prevent violent hate crimes.

{ In 2006, with the Civil Union Act, South Africa became the first country in Africa to legalize same sex marriage and the 5th country in the world. The legislation includes same sex marriage under common-law definition and legally gives gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. }

Her second series displayed, Somnyama Ngonyama, translates to “Hail, the Dark Lioness” and confronts the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive, while commenting on specific events in South Africa’s political history. Here, Muholi turns the camera on herself and shows a series of self-portraits where she takes on different characters and archetypes while referencing traditions of portraiture and fashion photography.

“The black face and its details become the focal point, forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure. By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness from the privileged gaze.”

 I cannot play down the importance of Zanele Muholi as an artist, as a photographer, as an activist, and as a deeply impassioned [gay female] human being.

Zanele Muholi: Zinathi is on view at NYU’s Gallatin Galleries until February 26th.

 

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