Zanele Muholi is an internationally celebrated South African photographer and self-described visual activist based in Johannesburg. Muholi's arresting, intimate portrait photography documents black queer and trans identity and history in South Africa.Read More
Born in Umlazi township near Durban, Zanele Muholi was raised under apartheid by a single mother. Initially turning to photography as a process of self-healing, in the early 2000s Muholi studied Advanced Photography under David Goldblatt at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. In 2009 the budding photographer graduated with an MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, Toronto.
For more than a decade Zanele Muholi's art has served to document the lives of black lesbian, gay bi-sexual, trans and intersex people in various South African townships. Zanele Muholi's 'Faces and Phases' series (2006–ongoing) depicts black lesbians in portraits that commemorate and celebrates their lives. Presenting these positive images of ordinary black lesbian women Muholi seeks to offset the stigma and negative attitudes towards queer identity in South Africa.
'Faces and Phases' requires little in the way of confrontation and theatricality. As Muholi explained to The Guardian¸ 'Just existing daily is political in itself and visibility also has its own politic especially for those in a space where some people are regarded as deviants.' It is to that end that Muholi presents these positive portraits to show these women exist.
Taking a collaborative approach to photography, the people Muholi photographs are participants, not subjects, and each photograph is taken with careful discussion and understanding. Identifying as a non-binary individual—preferring 'they' and 'them' over gendered pronounsl—Muholi is fully immersed in South Africa's black queer and trans community. Drawing upon personal experience Zanele Muholi's photography highlights that community's struggles and resilience as well as its growing visibility and sense of empowerment when united.
Zanele Muholi's 'Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness' (2017) more directly blurs the lion between subject (or participant) and artist–flipping the lens on the image-makers. In these self-portraits the artist experiments playing as various characters and archetypes in which historical events and elements of Zanele Muholi's biography are combined. The exaggerated blackness of Muholi's skin in these images is about personally reclaiming blackness and countering the dominant images of black women in the media.
Zanele Muholi's self-portraits are ultimately about re-writing and reclaiming South African homosexual history. The aim is to find a more democratic and representative portrayal of the existence and resistance of the black queer and trans community in the face of hate crimes.
Zanele Muholi's prints and photographs have found an international audience, featuring in gallery and institutional shows, and art events across the globe. The artist's work has featured in Documenta, the Venice Biennale and the São Paulo Biennale. Zanele Muholi's artworks also can be found in major public collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Art; the Tate Modern, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Beyond the photo frame, Zanele Muholi has been working to empower queer black voices in broader society. In 2002 Muholi co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women and in 2006 established queer and visual activist media forum, Inkanyiso. In 2020 Muholi was included in ArtReview's 'Power 100'.
Zanele Muholi, Tate Modern, London (2020); Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail The Dark Lioness, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, Argentina (2018); Zanele Muholi, LUMA Westbau, Zurich (2018); Homecoming, Durban Art Gallery, Durban (2017); Zanele Muholi, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2017); Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence, Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015); Faces and Phases, Goethe Institut, Johannesburg (2012); Only half the picture, Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg (2006); Visual Sexuality, as part of Urban, Johannesburg Art Gallery (2004).
Crossing Views, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2020); Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum , New York (2019); From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-face Picasso, Past and Present, Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, Québec (2018); In Their Own Form, Museum Of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2018); The Film Will Always Be You: South African Artists On Screen, Tate Modern, London (2015); _Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African photograph_y, V&A Museum, London (2011); Subject to Change, South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2005).
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021