Muholi’s titles, which reference places from North Carolina to Berlin, Paris, and Sweden, suggest her itinerant lifestyle and ability to shape-shift as she enters new places. Reading the titles, a viewer can construct the photographer’s journey—both literal and metaphorical—towards self-discovery.
“Bester” is a recurring character throughout the photographs taken in Mayotte (an island between Madagascar and Mozambique), who wears clothespins in her hair or a floral-patterned scarf around her head. Muholi took the name from her mother, who served a white South African family as a domestic worker for over four decades. Muholi reimagines Bester as a self-possessed, formidable presence.
While Muholi’s images reference place, they often seem removed from time: Her frames feature few objects that would connect them to the 21st century. Yet current events—traumas, in particular—motivate much of her imagery. In a conversation transcribed in the Aperture volume with Renée Mussai, curator and head of archive at Autograph ABP in London, Muholi spoke about taking a portrait in response to Sandra Bland’s 2015 murder in Texas.
Muholi connected the case to violence in South Africa. “A person had been found murdered in a cell and nobody wanted to take responsibility for what happened to this young black woman,” she said. “I regarded Sandra’s killing as a hate crime against the black body at the hands of someone.” In the two images that comprise MaID I (2015), Muholi wears white gloves that she first wraps around her neck as if to choke herself, then raised as if for a fight. Through the dual photographs, Muholi condemns racist brutality worldwide, while reclaiming her own image and ability to retaliate.
Muholi’s self-portraits allow for endless self-invention in a world that so often attempts to limit or punish expressions of race and sexual identity. At its core, it’s a practice of introspection. ‘‘This is why the self-portraits are so major to me,’’ she told
Jenna Wortham for a New York Times
profile in 2015. ‘‘We get caught up in other people’s worlds, and you never ask yourself how you became.’’