Zanele Muholi’s Tate Exhibition Shows Us the Power of Photography in Activism
Zanele Muholi, Aftermath, 2004. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist; Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg; and Yancey Richardson, New York.
Zanele Muholi, Bona, Charlottesville, 2015. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist; Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg; and Yancey Richardson, New York.
One of the first photographs to meet the eyes at Zanele Muholi’s major new survey at Tate Modern is titled Aftermath (2004). The black-and-white photograph, from Muholi’s earliest series “Only Half the Picture” (2003–06), is a close crop of the subject’s abdomen, groin, and thighs. Hands are clasped over the groin area—hovering, protective, but not quite touching the skin. A long scar runs down the right thigh. Violence is implicit in the image, and in the young body’s past, but Muholi shifts the focus away from what has happened and towards what is possible, in the “aftermath,” as the title suggests. The artist’s motives have always been “resistance and existence.” What we cannot see in the picture is that the subject was raped two days before it was taken. The question of this photograph shifts from “What happened?” to “How can we heal?”
This is a part of Muholi’s mission: to address reality while awakening the potential that lies within each and every one of their hundreds of subjects, most of whom are personally connected to the artist. When Muholi began taking their first photographs—an alumni of the Market Photo Workshop in South Africa—in the early 2000s, they began by addressing the urgent need to tell the stories of the abuse and violence that LGBTQIA+ people in South Africa suffered on a daily basis. Through images, Muholi sought to remind the rest of the world that despite progessive laws on sexual and gender discrimination (in 1996, South Africa was the first country to make discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal) the problems were far from resolved.
Zanele Muholi, ID Crisis, 2003. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist; Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg; and Yancey Richardson, New York.
The “Only Half the Picture” series depicts marginalized individuals who are survivors; some experienced violence, others have endured oppression through personal and private acts, like wearing a strap-on to engage in pleasure, or refusing to remove body hair. These pictures have purpose and pride, as well as pain. It’s an intimate and unflinching look: shot close-up and cropped, and in safe, private spaces. The perspective in these photographs is important, too: There’s no question that Muholi is a collaborator, not an outsider. This space is shared. Muholi’s photographic act is testimony and witness—and it also punctuates an end, in order to mark a new beginning.
Testimony has remained intrinsic to Muholi’s work of the last 20 years. They have always emphasized their work as activism. Their images have traveled across continents in exhibitions, won awards and accolades, and been featured in mainstream press around the globe. But Muholi’s poiesis from the start has been rooted in their own life and community, in the tapestry of lived experiences. Video and written interviews with subjects form an integral part of the pictures and are presented alongside them in the Tate exhibition, which unfolds chronologically. In order to fully understand the photographs, full immersion in these stories is vital.
Zanele Muholi, Yaya Mavundla, Parktown, Johannesburg , 2014. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist; Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg; and Yancey Richardson, New York.
Zanele Muholi, Lungile Cleo Dladla, KwaThema, Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist; Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg; and Yancey Richardson, New York.
Muholi has consistently been concerned with absence as much as presence, with memory and memorial, and the implications of photography within that dialogue. This dichotomy is at the heart of their groundbreaking, most famous work, “Faces and Phases” (2006–present), a series of more than 500 black-and-white portraits, stylized and direct, of LGBTQIA+ people. These images are installed in grids, as is the case at Tate Modern, where they lined the gallery walls, but with some empty spaces—representing people who are no longer there, or whose pictures are yet to be taken. These omissions make it clear that no chronicle can ever be complete. The gaps are as emotive as the portraits.
Though Muholi favors black and white for its timeless quality, the show also features their kaleidoscopic color portraits of transgender women, gay men, and gender nonconforming people. The vivid photographs, taken at sites of social, political, and historical importance in South Africa, effectively transport the viewer into the here and now. “We transition within the space in order to make sure that the Black trans bodies are part of this as well,” Muholi has said. “We owe it to ourselves.”
The push and pull between past and present, visible and invisible, continues into Muholi’s most recent, monumental work, “Somnyama Ngonyama” (2014–17). A collection of elaborate self-portraits shows how Muholi’s language as a visual activist has evolved from documentary towards the staged and subjective; much has changed since Muholi began working, and “Somnyama” also reflects changes in the artist’s lifestyle, as they’ve spent more time traveling with their work, and away from home and community, in the white- and heteronormative-dominated cultural spaces of Europe.
Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist; Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg; and Yancey Richardson, New York.
Zanele Muholi, Bester I, Mayotte, 2015. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist; Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg; and Yancey Richardson, New York.
In these performative self-portraits, Muholi stages themself in different roles, in response to racist comments and encounters they have experienced abroad. They use found materials to create costumes and props that are rich in cultural, political, and personal references. The series is an experimental approach to self-documentation and self-realization. This work—which inhabits the final room of the exhibition in an impressive, multi-wall installation—proves Muholi’s vision as an activist is tireless and thriving. Yet it signals a more introspective direction in their work, as they find new ways to strike the viewer and create the most impact.
Muholi’s form of visual activism depends on the power of photography. They harness the unique capacity a photograph has to stop us in our tracks, and the way it can hold entire histories in its four corners. Presenting their work like this, in institutions like the Tate, means that their activism can go beyond the now—and in this way, it can endure longer and reach wider than any placard or protest, for generations to come.