• Erika Argiolas


For the first time, the United Kingdom offers us an entire mid-career retrospective dedicated entirely to the work of Zanele Muholi. The 48-year-old visual activist uses the pronoun "they" and since the 2000s has been trying to draw attention to subjects that are always ignored and overshadowed. Muholi works hard to create story testimonials that are tangible and that realistically describe the community they feel to be part of: black lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and intersex communities in South Africa.

Faces and bodies are the protagonists of this show, spokespersons of a difficult South Africa history, which historically has always struggled to be represented. The representation of these peoples has always been entrusted to the predominance of white colonies, but this time it is Muholi to represent it, and this is fundamental. The whole work is based on an intimate relationship of trust between the “participants” photographed - as they are called by the photographer - rather than subjects. Thus, underlining the collaboration that is the basis of this design relationship, founded on a relationship intentionally created by the photographer, between meetings repeated over time, a testimony of changes and evolution.

The exhibition opens with a series of portraits that are part of the first phase of production of the Visual Activist: Only Half the Picture (2002-2006). A first image, Aftermath (2004) shows a woman from the navel upwards as she holds her hands together - in an act of protection - over her private parts. Just wearing shorts and tight, but a tear down on their right leg alarms me. Soon after, I learn that the participant was recently raped and that the scar on her leg is nothing more than the testimony of this heinous act. The room is so covered with photographs that bear witness to horrible atrocities that the South African community experience daily.

In the photographs, however, there is no sign of sadness or evident violence, there is rather a sort of feeling of challenge, of resistance, immersed in a bath of vulnerability and joy, facing painful feelings that can be excruciating.

Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, © Zanele Muholi

And there is so much beauty and happiness in the couples who are represented in the room that presents the Muholi's Being series (2006-ongoing). Participants are represented in situations of everyday life, in ordinary and loving poses together.

Brave Beauties (2014-Ongoing) instead shows us a series of portraits of trans women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people. Some of the participants in this series are beauty pageant contestants. They offer a space of resistance within the Black LGBTQIA + community in South Africa.

Sazi Jali, Durban, 2020 © Zanele Muholi

These participants thus find a place where they can freely express themselves in their beauty without the danger of heteronormative and white supremacist culture. This series is provocation and resistance together again, a challenge launched to change the mind-set of those same communities in which the participants live and in which they are often sadly victims of harassment and sometimes even worse.

In 2006 Muholi made the Faces and Phases series. A collective portrait, which has more than 500 works, celebrates and commemorates and in a certain sense archives the life of the Black LGBTQIA + community.

"It is important to mark, map and preserve our movements through reference visual stories and posterity, so that future generations will notice that we were here."

Xana Nyilenda, Newtown, Johannesburg, © Zanele Muholi
MaGesh Zungu, © Zanele Muholi

The portraits are the result of an intense and constant collaboration between Muholi and the participants. In fact, after some time Muholi returns to the same participant photographed before to be able to portray them again; this process has the sole intent of witnessing the transition and changes that occur to the person being photographed, in order to highlight the transitions between a phase of the participant's sexuality or the expression of gender or the identity of the same, before and after. This type of collaboration also aims to shed light on changes in the lifestyles of the portrayed participant, in their daily routine and lifestyle, including aging, education, work experiences in their life or marriage.

The final part of the exhibition whose title is Somnyama Ngonyama (2012 - ongoing), translated from the isiZulu - Muholi's first language - as Hail the Dark Lioness, a series in which the photographer turns the camera on themself to explore the politics of race and representation, is the result of a busy travel program shot in cities in Africa, Europe and North America for six years.

The visual activist shows themself in different poses and archetypes that address and analyze issues such as politics, racism, work and sexual representation.

Ziphelele, Parktown, 2016, © Zanele Muholi

It is an homage to the history of South African politics but also a moment to recall atrocious practices in the times of apartheid: in Ziphelele, Parktown (2016), Muholi immortalizes herself wrapped in tires placed around the body and neck, a clear reference to the "collar", an execution that was carried out in that period which involved the use of a rubber tire tight around the victim's neck and which was set on fire.

"'Somnyama Ngonyama' is about self, race, gender, experience, pain, expression. It is recent history," Muholi said. It is also about how "people refuse to accept that we have problems with racism," added the artist.

In some photographs, Muholi emphasizes the contrast of the images of the series, which has the effect of darkening the skin tone even more and this is an effect voluntarily desired by the artist, the result of a post-production work of the photograph, aimed at reclaiming his "Blackness" which the artist believes is "continuously performed by the privileged other". To some, this practice may remind of the racist practice of blackface, in which white actors painted their faces and performed exaggerated and stereotyped postures.

Muholi thus breaks down the doors, opening the way to a mission that aims to rewrite the black queer and trans visual history of South Africa, so that the world becomes aware of their existence, of their resistance. Their insistence in dealing with these topics, the courage to expose themself to the media and the passion pushes them more and more to the creation and preparation of a fertile ground, in which who knows, maybe even other personalities will feel encouraged to plant their own seed.