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.