Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 18, 2022
Zanele Muholi
Gropius Bau, Berlin, November 26, 2021–March 13, 2022
Zanele Muholi, installation view, Gropius Bau, Berlin, 2021 (photograph by Eike Walkenhorst; provided by Gropius Bau)

Zanele Muholi presented the full breadth of the South African artist’s work to date. Muholi’s photographic practice attends to the Black LGBTQIA+ community and addresses sexual politics, racial violence, self-affirmation, and lesser-known histories. Originating at Tate Modern, the exhibition is an international feat, curated by Tate’s Yasufumi Nakamori and Sarah Allen with Gropius Bau’s Natasha Ginwala. In a video interview, Muholi opens with the statement, “What matters most is content—who is in the picture and why are they there?” In Zanele Muholi, the curators echo the artist’s sentiment, as Muholi’s photographic and multimedia series unfold throughout Gropius Bau’s ten rooms.

Covering nearly twenty years of work, the exhibition brings archival materials and videos together with Muholi’s photographs to offer a holistic picture of their artistic and political commitments. The exhibition unfolds series by series, beginning with one of their earliest projects, Being (2006–ongoing), comprising portraits that depict moments of intimacy, mutual respect, and sexual exploration between queer couples carrying out their daily routines. The couples are shown in private spaces, often in close-up, quiet embrace, and/or nude. The nature of these pictures demonstrates the collaborative relationship that develops between the artist and the individuals they photograph. Next to the series title, two portraits of Black couples are placed side by side. On the left, a nude couple with their bodies bent over a wash basin cleanse themselves in a cramped, candlelit space. The position of the couple, with their faces turned away from the camera, alludes to the care, intimacy, and vulnerability of the image’s capture. On the right, a nude woman raises her leg as she leans into her partner, while the partner holds both their hands to her face. Here, Muholi transforms a moment of casual and ordinary reliance on another, elevating the mundane intimacies of queer love to a point of reverence. By obscuring the couples’ faces, the photographs allow bodily interaction to take precedence over the distinctions of visage.

The exhibition continues with the series Only Half the Picture (2002–06). Transitioning from images of intimacy and obscured identity, Only Half the Picture asserts itself as an act of defiance through visibility. In their image Aftermath, Muholi’s camera zooms in on healed scar tissue from a hate crime that extends along the entirety of a person’s thigh, descending from hip into dark shadow near the knee. In ID Crisis, a person binds their chest, but it is unclear whether they are wrapping or unwrapping their bandages. While being queer is legal in South Africa, hate crimes toward Black queer individuals are common, demonstrating that legal standing does not imply guaranteed safety. The overall series focuses on survivors of hate crimes throughout South Africa, and the photographs are accompanied by documentation of trials and anti-hate-crime campaigns. These works continue to add nuance to Muholi’s portraiture, as the photographer experiments with the genre’s tension between singular and collective meaning.

The next series on display, Somnyama Ngonyama (2012–ongoing), examines the effects of colonial and generational trauma through self-portraiture. The images were taken all over the world and are displayed in various sizes as the artist uses their own image to confront oppressive historical forces, grieve, and heal. Muholi’s appearance is self-fashioned from everyday objects and materials from their surroundings, transforming them into a means of questioning systemic and historical violence. In one image near the room’s entrance, Muholi’s face is shown in close-up directly gazing into the camera. They are surrounded by the plastic film that is found in airports around the world to wrap luggage. Through mundane and disposable materials, Muholi’s self-compression serves as a metaphor for the surveillance and profiling that often constricts and overwhelms Black individuals while traveling. Many of the photographs in this series are captioned in the isiZulu language, Muholi’s native tongue, which operates as a part of Muholi’s activism, connecting to the forced removal of local names under apartheid.

Zanele Muholi demonstrates the artist’s long-term self-identification as a “visual activist,” as their photographs utilize what the exhibition curators call “positive visualization.” Muholi consistently documents the visual evidence of colonial and physical trauma in a manner that centers and empowers those most vulnerable to these destructive forces. This visual strategy is foregrounded in the next two groupings on display, Queering Public Space and Brave Beauties (2014–ongoing). In Queering Public Space, a large format image captures the viewer’s attention immediately. It depicts a group of transwomen, gender-nonconforming individuals, and nonbinary people kneeling on a beachfront, with a beauty pageant winner at the center. Crowds surround the group, filling the background space until solid ground turns to ocean. Beaches were segregated during apartheid and still stand in as spaces of segregation in contemporary life because queer people are often erased from them. By experimenting with scale as well as collective portraiture, Muholi attempts to make public space hospitable to queer life. In Brave Beauties, the photographer utilizes the lexicon of fashion magazine covers to venerate images of trans women, pageant contestants, and drag queens. These images express beauty outside of the heteronormative and white supremacist gaze, both to celebrate self-making and challenge social stigmas around the body.

Two rooms in the exhibition are devoted to Faces and Phases (2006–ongoing), which archives representations of Black lesbians as they evolve over time. From early in their career, Muholi recorded firsthand testimonies and experiences from Black LGBTQIA+ community members. It has been a long-term goal of the artist to give people a platform to tell their own stories, and the first of these two rooms is devoted to a video of eight people sharing their life experiences as a part of the LGBTQIA community in South Africa, some of whom overlap with the Faces and Phases photographic series. The video testimonials are powerful, enriching the picture of Black queer life in the country, while anecdotes from these participants narrate a nuanced and diverse perspective on their shared social experience. As one of the artist’s most enduring projects, the second room of Faces and Phases reveals the power of display, as portraits from the 500-work series are shown in a grid. “Faces” refers to the person being photographed, while “phases” documents transition: in sexuality, gender expression, or stages in life. Trust is at the heart of the project, as Muholi often returns to photograph the same person over time. An entire wall is dedicated to participants who have passed away.

Finally, the rooms “Context and Collectivity” and “Tracing Contexts” situate Muholi’s work within a more expansive network of belonging and social significance. Collective vision remains central to Muholi’s work and “Context and Collectivity” features images that offer a collaborative record of public events. These images form a growing visual archive of queer life in South Africa that document social life at different scales, from Pride marches and protests to marriages and funerals. These images stem from the artist’s large network of collaborators, including members of the Inkanyiso collective, which focuses on visual arts and media advocacy. This is in part a response to the lack of visual histories produced by and for Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community. The exhibition concludes with the timeline “Tracing Contexts.” The timeline documents the artist’s place within histories of South African activism. It addresses apartheid and queer activism, contextualizing Muholi’s body of work within greater ideologies as well as specific places or events of meaning for the artist. These rooms, taken together, showcase Muholi’s political and visual commitment to queer Black South Africans, compiling a photographic counter-archive that witnesses, confronts, celebrates, and preserves moments of joy and darkness throughout the history of Muholi’s community in South Africa and abroad.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog organized primarily around the six series on display in the show. It begins with a glossary that defines key terms used by and about the South African LGBTQIA+ community and Zulu words that are relevant to Muholi’s photographs. The essays on Muholi are written by exhibition curators as well as by South African writers, and the book concludes with a conversation between the artist and prominent curator of South African art, Katarina Pierre. The essays themselves offer further contextualization and nuanced perspectives on more minute or overlooked aspects of Muholi’s work. Notable are head curator Yasufumi Nakamori’s attention to Muholi’s color portraiture and Sindiwe Magona’s investment in the relationship between vision and cultural rituals. Pamella Dlungwana’s “Community and Collectivity/Uphathe umphako-ukhumbul’ ekhaya” in particular stands out among the essays. Dlungwana’s text offers personal meditations on Muholi photographs and sparks a different form of communal capture through the author’s words, creatively implementing Muholi’s emphasis on collective image making.

Zanele Muholi is an exhibition that understands, like the artist, photography’s capabilities and its limits, creating an expanded sense of portrait photography that reroutes the medium’s faults—namely the question of photographic agency—and utilizes what the discipline does best: bearing witness and confirming existence. 

Kimber Chewning
History of Art & Architecture, Boston University