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Zanele Muholi Stakes Their Claim

In Conversation with
Jareh Das
London, 4 August 2021

Zanele Muholi, Mihla, Port Edward (2020). Gelatin silver print in frame. Edition of 7. 70 x 70 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Zanele Muholi, Mihla, Port Edward (2020). Gelatin silver print in frame. Edition of 7. 70 x 70 cm. Courtesy the artist.

The opening of Zanele Muholi's exhibition Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong (18 May–15 August 2021) coincided with the end of the artist's first major U.K. survey at Tate Modern (5 November 2020–31 May 2021).

Presented in collaboration with Muholi Arts Project, Somnyama Ngonyama features over 50 self-portraits, among them paintings, of the South African visual activist and photographer: mostly distinctive black and white images that present the artist adorned in props reflecting their everyday surroundings, their gaze at once serious and confrontational.

Blown-up posters of Zanele Muholi's artworks at the 58th International Art Exhibition

Installation view: Zanele Muholi in May You Live In Interesting Times, The 58th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia (11 May–24 November 2019). Courtesy the artist.

Aside from these self-portraits, which recently featured in the 2019 Venice Biennale, Muholi is internationally recognised for photographic portraits of South African sexual minorities, and activism exposing hate crimes and punitive rapes fuelled by transphobia, homophobia, and gender-based violence.

Defiant black and white portraits characterise the ongoing 'Faces and Phases' (2006–ongoing) series, which documents Black South African lesbians, transgender individuals, and gender non-conforming and non-binary people.

A highly contrasted portrait of Zanele Muholi captures the artist with a feather headdress against a white background, looking up towards the ceiling.

Zanele Muholi, Sine II, Melbourne, Australia (2020). Edition 1/8. Gelatin silver print in frame. Artwork size: 80 x 63 cm; framing size: 82.8 x 65.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.
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My first real-life encounter with the artist's awe-inspiring, community-driven, and radical practice occurred at Performa 17 in New York (1–19 November 2017).

Framed under South African Pavilion Without Walls, one of three themes outlined by Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg and curator Adrienne Edwards, I found Muholi and their team of 23 performers, dancers, singers, poets, and activists at a late night event of music and dancing at Public Arts, the basement venue of PUBLIC Hotel,which hosted Performa AFTERHOURS.

Exhibition view: Zanele Muholi, Tate Modern (5 November 2020–31 May 2021). Courtesy the artist.

Muholi's New York happening was part of Masihambisane – On Visual Activism, a series of events that took place across the city as part of Performa to highlight the needs, wellbeing, and ultimate survival of LGBTQIA+ individuals in South Africa who constantly face oppression and death.

Portraits from 'Faces and Places' were shown in various public settings, including a Times Square billboard, digital screens at six subway stations, and the City Point commercial complex in Brooklyn.

A portrait of artist Zanele Muholi captures the artist with two gourds resting either side of their head. Their gaze fixes the viewer.

Zanele Muholi, Calabashe, Emhlabeni (2019). Courtesy the artist.

But while Muholi's critical work extends to wider practices of erasure, their work isn't just about invisibility. It is also deeply rooted in belonging, community. The artist's Muholico-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women and Inkanyiso, which supports queer and visual activist media.

In the conversation that follows, Muholi talks about a life of activism, staking a claim for existence, and the importance of forging ongoing safe spaces for communality as part of their over two-decades long practice.

In a white gallery space, framed black and white photographs by Zanele Muholi sit along the walls. At the far end of the gallery, a bright red portrait sits against the wall on the floor.

Exhibition view: Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong (18 May–15 August 2021). Courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

JDI've always been struck by the community and worldbuilding that is at core of what you do. I was moved by the project you did at Performa 17, and continue to be inspired by the ethos of love, resistance, and solidarity of all who were present in it. Can you expand on what visual activism in everyday life means to you?

ZMVisual activism in everyday life means two things to me. It means finding ways to visibly occupy spaces that once made us invisible, and it also entails creating visuals that intervene against oppression.

The political agenda behind my work is not yet fulfilled. Whether I'm working in photography or in painting, history and politics are present, so I have to continue to redirect, resist, and interrogate the act of looking.

As a daily, lived practice, visual activism is using your presence to challenge the status quo and rewrite exclusionary historical narratives, as well as produce visual artefacts that will continue to do this work and challenge racist archives after we're gone.

Zanele Muholi's artwork depicting a female Mambo dancing on the beach holding a rainbow umbrella, flapping her white cape

Zanele Muholi, Mellissa Mbambo, Durban South Beach (2017). Courtesy the artist.

JDWhat strategies help connect the work you do with a younger Black LGBTQIA+ generation coming up in South Africa, through initiatives including the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, Inkanyiso, and keeping collective members motivated in a world where one does not stop fighting?

I'm thinking here of how to rest, pause, and care for others and oneself, whilst creating spaces where this happens and that offer both respite and resistance.

ZMIn terms of connecting with a younger generation, I try to ensure my work doesn't stop being accessible to people, regardless of age or education. I'm active on social media in ways that include humour and openness.

Our foundation produced a colouring book of Somnyama Ngonyama that allows children to engage with the material in a playful way. Most recently, I've provided workshops in photography and painting to the children and young adults in my area aged 3 to 21 and 21 to 34, and in these sessions, we dance and have fun while we work.

Poster of Zanele Muholi artwork, with a women gazing at the viewer at la Biennale di Venezia

Installation view: Zanele Muholi in May You Live In Interesting Times, The 58th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia (11 May–24 November 2019). Courtesy the artist.

As a result of apartheid, people are categorised as youths until they turn 35, which can stunt development. My activism now focuses on education and building arts infrastructure in places that are rural or still considered peripheral.

We're essentially building a school and working to instil the importance of arts education in our underprivileged communities. This matters so much to me because the poor education I received under apartheid has taken a lifetime to break through, and I'd like for the current and coming generations to know that more is possible.

Regarding keeping collective members motivated, we're all activists, so even if what we do is difficult and we're traumatised or demotivated by the things we see in the headlines, we are each other's support systems and we try to keep each other going.

A highly contrasted black and white photograph by Zanele Muholi frames the artist gazing out assertively at the viewer. They have two white bowls and a pair of glasses attached either side of their head in a futuristic headdress.

Zanele Muholi, Zine XX, Melbourne, Australia (2020). Edition 1/8. Gelatin silver print in frame. 60 x 50 cm; framing Size: 62.8 x 52.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

JDIn your role as an artist and activist who uses a camera to bear witness to pain, love, and defiance within the Black LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa with serial works such as 'Faces and Phases' that began over a decade ago in 2006, how do you constantly redirect the gaze towards the self and others in your work in terms of themes and thinking through what to capture?

ZMAs you say, my work is about bearing witness to the spectrum of humanity within the Black LGBTQIA+ community, so as an activist I feel my task is to continue to do this, even when fatigue sets in.

The political agenda behind my work is not yet fulfilled. Whether I'm working in photography or in painting, history and politics are present, so I have to continue to redirect, resist, and interrogate the act of looking.

Exhibition of Zanele Muholi artworks hung vertically across Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kon

Exhibition view: Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong (18 May–15 August 2021). Courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

JDWhat are the ways you've stayed grounded within an art world that often hijacks artist and collective-led activism for all sorts of agendas, particularly when working with institutions and galleries?

ZMMy work is about collectivity. It is intimately tied into the thinking of others, so it's not possible to lose the connection to my community and see myself as a sole creator.

Even when my face and body are in the frame, I take on archetypes to speak to broader histories and experiences. Without this grounding, the work would not exist.

A highly contrasted photograph of Zanele Muholi features the artist with black disks adorning their head, as they gaze out at the viewer assertively.

Zanele Muholi, Vika, The Decks, Cape Town (2019). Edition 1/8 (AP). Gelatin silver print in frame. Artwork size: 59.4 x 43.4 cm; framing Size: 62.4 x 46.4 x 4 cm. Courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

JD'Somnyama Ngonyama' (2012–ongoing) sees you subvert the gaze to reclaim your Blackness. Could you expand on the importance of presenting this body of work as a network of multiple gazes and actively looking back to stake a claim and challenge constructions of and projections on the Black body?

ZMAs said, the gaze is political. It is intimately connected to power, its movement, and its consequences. The lines between who gets to look and who is looked at is the same line between imperialism and dispossession.

To see myself in this way and reclaim authority is an action that heals me and visually tells others that look like me that they have the right to see and heal themselves.

Thus, 'Somnyama Ngonyama' actively takes on gazes and the projections they cause, as well as the constructions they bring to mind, because this is how we unseat biases. Discrimination begins with the eye and the conclusions are drawn from looking.

To see myself in this way and reclaim authority is an action that heals me and visually tells others that look like me that they have the right to see and heal themselves.

Exhibition at Tate Modern of Zanele Muholi's artworks across the gallery walls which are painted black

Exhibition view: Zanele Muholi, Tate Modern, London (5 November 2020–31 May 2021). Courtesy the artist.

JDCould you expand a bit on your relationship to the practice of Renee Cox? When did you first encounter her, and in what ways does her practice resonate with yours, in terms of using one's own body to celebrate Black womanhood and criticise a racist and sexist society?

ZMRenee Cox is one of the most important creators and thinkers in our art world. She has contributed a lot to the political discussion around bodies.

My wish is that South African practitioners who have been as committed could be as recognised globally. People like Sindiwe Magona, Berni Searle, and Tracey Rose have been loud and prolific before the discourse became mainstream, as well as the younger cohort with Gabi Ngcobo and Zethu Matebeni.

A highly contrasted black and white photograph of Zanele Muholi features the artist gazing out at the viewer, with a mass of silvery coat hangers assembled across their chest and neck.

Zanele Muholi, Vika III, The Decks, Cape Town (2019). Edition 2/8. Gelatin silver print in frame. Artwork size: 70 x 58 cm; framing Size: 72.8 x 61 cm. Courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

JDWhat does beauty mean to you both as subversion and expression?

ZMI think we have to be careful and deliberate when we talk about beauty, because the very idea has been steeped in Eurocentrism and weaponised against people who don't fall into this framework, casting them as exotic or bestial depending on the gaze.

The current standard of beauty is something to be subverted. We need to make space for different kinds of beauty, since all beings and all things have the ability to spark a connection and be powerful and moving, which is what I think beauty really is. —[O]

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