31 March 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
Muholi prefer not to be defined artists, but visual activists, because art is only the tool they have chosen to give visibility and empowerment to the community to which they belong. As they said in a recent interview, “ours is not a profession, but a lifestyle, 24 hours a day”. The community in question is the LGBTQIA+ one (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual+) of South Africa, where Muholi were born just over fifty years ago. If today it is considered the most advanced country on the continent – it was the first, in 2006, to legalize same-sex marriages – South Africa is also the one where, during Apartheid, black people were deprived of its visual history. And where even today the queer community is often threatened by prejudice and violence.
Muholi’s decision to obliterate the name with which they were called at birth, Zanele, dates back to recent months, as it sanctions a genre to which they do not feel they belong, choosing instead to identify themselves only with the surname. They also specifically asked to use non-binary language and the pronoun they-them-their (them) when speaking or writing about Muholi.
Using the medium of photography, Muholi have become one of the most influential artists of their generation, and on a global scale. After consecration in a series of art biennials and international institutions (they are in the collection of the Guggenheim in New York and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, among others) last year they were celebrated in a major retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. And today, and until May 21st, an equally important one is underway at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, while the Mudec in Milan has just inaugurated an exhibition, which can be visited until July 30th, which brings together 80 very powerful self-portraits by Muholi. In fierce black and white, with dark tones dramatically saturated to create an effect that is almost three-dimensional, these shots, printed in large dimensions, are part of the series – begun in 2012 and not yet completed – entitled Somnyama Ngonyama (“Ave Black Lioness”, in the Zulu language) in which the artist, who at the time still recognized herself in the singular, had chosen to focus the photographic lens on herself, thus starting to expose herself in the first person. And thus implementing, through the obsessive repetitiveness of the series, a transformation into a plural, an icon of a collective identity of the South African gay black community. In most of the self-portraits Muholi’s eyes observe us, in a deep and hypnotic gaze that is sometimes defiant, sometimes expresses pride or even tenderness, in a sort of affirmative action that shouts: black (and queer) is beautiful, he has courage and dignity and deserves to be understood and respected.
The preparation of Muholi’s shots is in itself an artistic performance, because the figure of the artists has been adorned with seemingly banal everyday objects, whether it’s hairstyles made with clothespins, rags, animal skins or necklaces electric cables, car tyres, safety pins or surgical gloves, all creating compositions of hypnotic beauty and strong symbolic value. Muholi invite you to read them beyond their aesthetic value, pausing to reflect on the identity message they convey.
If the Milanese exhibition also includes a site specific installation, in the Parisian one, which includes 200 works including photographs and video materials, the other series of Muholi’s artistic and political career are also exhibited, also in colour, from Brave Beauties – in which members of the queer and transgender community, in South Africa and abroad were portrayed – in Faces and Phases, an original narrative of lesbian identity. In both, one perceives that the protagonists of the images are not mere subjects in the service of art, but participate in the creation of a story that wants – and must – emerge from marginalization. Not surprisingly, Muholi started a photography school in the townships of Johannesburg and created the collective Inkanyuso (or “Light”, in Zulu), a media platform for free and conscious expression of the LGBTQIA+ community of South Africa.