Zanele Muholi’s Initimate Portrait of LGBTI Life in South Africa Comes to the Brooklyn Museum

Susan Sontag may have claimed that to photograph a subject is to appropriate it, but Zanele Muholi’s work stands in opposition to that sentiment—her finely wrought portrait photography, as much an activist practice as a form of art-making, advocates for the LGBTI community as it documents it. Since the beginning of the 2000s, Muholi has, through her work with a number of institutions and projects, given a face to the oppressed minorities in her native South Africa; this year marks her most comprehensive museum exhibition to date.

Muholi started out, unsurprisingly, as a journalist. Early in her career she worked as a writer and photographer for an African publication focused on LGBTI issues. Driven by the media’s focus on HIV, “corrective rape,” and violence, she focused on bringing positive and lovingly intimate images of her community into the collective consciousness, holding photo shoots in which South African lesbians could be portrayed as them saw themselves, rather than as actors in an overwhelmingly negative political paradigm. This “visual activism,” as she calls it, stands as a necessary cultural counterpoint in a country that technically protects the rights of the LGBTI community but takes few steps to combat widespread assault.

That Muholi enjoys her own intimate relationship with her subjects—the vast majority are close friends, part of a tight-knit circle of confidants and collaborators—adds to the work’s sense of operating as an act of “reflection as opposed to an interpretation,” as the artist has said. “There’s something very important about films about black women and girls being made by black women.” To wit, Muholi founded a collective in 2009 called Ikanyiso, which educates and empowers queer black women to tell their own stories. But as Muholi has exhibited internationally and her profile has increased, she’s faced her share of troubles: once, her home was broken into and 20 irreplaceable hard drives destroyed. 

A recently opened show at the Brooklyn Museum brings together a handful of series that Muholi has crafted since 2007 and includes 87 works, including her critically acclaimed “Faces and Phases” portraiture series; the video work Being Scene; and the ongoing “Weddings” series, which focuses on the same-sex unions in Muholi’s community.

—M. Osberg


“Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, May 1–Nov. 1, 2015.

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