Above image: Zanele Muholi Ntozakhe II, Parktown 2016 Courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery © Zanele Muholi
Tate have announced the highlights of their 2020 exhibition programme, of which a solo exhibition by contemporary South African artist Zanele Muholi ranks among the most eagerly anticipated.
A graduate of David Goldblatt’s renowned Market Photo Workshop, Muholi’s practice is primarily concerned with providing visibility and representation to South Africa’s LGBTQ communities as a means of resistance against violence, discrimination and other hate crimes. Muholi considers herself primarily a visual activist, having co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, and in 2009 founding Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual (activist) media.
Much like Goldblatt’s talent incubating workshop, which trained photographers with the tools to question and resist the world around them, Muholi is committed to facilitating the emergence of new generations of photographers by running workshops for young women in townships.
Faces and Phases is among her most important work. A series of portraits shot in black and white celebrate the lives of South Africa’s LGBTQ community, giving them the representation they otherwise lack and creating a counter-narrative that challenges black-queer invisibility. As part of our look at the most important photographers to emerge from South Africa over the last three decades, we spoke to curator Julie Bonzon on the significance of Muholi’s work. Below is an excerpt from our conversation:
FB: What can you tell me about Zanele Muholi?
JB: She’s a huge figure in photography now, you see her everywhere. She studied at The Market Photo Workshop as well and she’s interesting because she considers herself primarily a visual activist prior to a photographer. She has been very much concerned with giving visibility to the LGBTQI community, which was not a hugely important subject during the Apartheid years. This underrepresented community suffers from violence on an everyday basis and Muholi uses her photographs to raise awareness.
FB: Do you have a favourite series?
JB: Faces and Phases is a series of portraits very much about creating a counter-narrative of South African experience. If you visit an exhibition where the work is displayed, you will see walls filled with individual portraits, celebrated and beautifully composed. The work is about counter-narrative but it’s also about creating a different history, a new and alternative ‘monument’ in including those people and their individual stories in the broader history of the country.
“The women portrayed have continuously received death threats, many have been murdered since.”
FB: And so did the idea of counter-representation first emerge with Zanele?
JB: I think it started as soon as cameras became available to a wider audience, as attested by the studio photographs found by Santu Mofokeng in his series, The Black Photo Album/Look At Me: 1890-1950, but Muholi’s work is now exhibited internationally, in museums, galleries and fairs. She has been criticised about displaying her work Faces and Phases in so-called ‘white spaces’ but she justified it by saying that those are actually secure spaces to display the portraits and have a conversation. The women portrayed have continuously received death threats, many have been murdered since. The space where the work is displayed doesn’t seem to alter its political meaning.
Zanele Muholi is on at Tate Modern from 29 April to 18 October 2020.