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Empowering gender ambiguity: Now on show in a Berlin exhibition, South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s work focuses on LGBTQ Black identities.
Zanele Muholi wants to help end prejudice against queer and trans South Africans
A person looks out into the distance, surrounded by a veld of grass and weeds. Their gender is nondescript. The subject’s expression is also open to interpretation. But one thing is clear: the individual is Black.
Ambiguity, particularly surrounding the subject’s gender, is the hallmark of Zanele Muholi’s work, now on show at the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin until March 13, 2022.
Since the early 2000s, Muholi has been working tirelessly to represent and portray LGBTQ identities in South Africa, highlighting how queer and trans individuals continue to fight to lead authentic lives while facing heinous hate crimes in a highly polarized society.
Muholi’s pictures are of compelling ambiguity
“Photography has given me that space to express the self in ways that I would not have been able to if I used another medium,” Muholi said in an interview at the Tate Modern in London last year.
“What matters the most is the content: Who is in the picture, and why are they there?” Muholi pointed out, adding that posing in front of the camera has also contributed to dealing with the artist’s own personal story and pain.
“In my world, every human is beautiful. It’s the kindness and what comes from within that is beautiful. It’s not the outer layer,” Muholi once said when asked what role beauty plays in the portrayal of LGBTQ Black identities. “It’s not about beauty per se but it’s about the need of documenting the realities of people who deserve to be heard.”
Zanele Muholi, shown here in a self-portrait, celebrates the lives of the LGBTQ communities of South Africa through photography and other kinds of visual art. The language of Muholi’s depictions of queer African identities builds on visual contrast, and also focuses on the explicit portrayal of acts of introspection.
Muholi’s work is more than mere photography. It is an act of activism itself. Through art, Muholi highlights issues affecting the LGBTQ community in their country, where issues like so-called “corrective rape” and HIV/AIDS continue to affect the lives of thousands of South Africans. At the same time, Muholi’s focus on beauty provides a contrast that could be interpreted as a sense of hope.
Identifying as non-binary, Muholi (who uses the pronouns they/them) regards the subjects depicted in their works simply “as a human being.” Their exploration of the human condition often hints at the harsh realities of life in South Africa as a queer minority — such as suffering hate crimes. This is a deliberate juxtaposition to the aesthetic standards they also seek to present in their work.
Having grown up under apartheid during their youth, Muholi’s deliberate blurring of social identities can be seen both as representative and contradictory of the “Rainbow Nation” concept that South Africa hopes to project. Race continues to be a major issue in their country, as the white minority still rules over the economy. Muholi’s response is to simply mix things — and identities — up.
Muholi’s portraiture of South African members of the LGBTQ community often conceals the subject’s (biological) gender identity. This way, audiences can deliberate how they automatically react to an image — and what that might say about them. It also protects the identity of the queer subjects shown in their photographs, who despite legal protections on paper often have to live in hiding.
The depiction of lesbian couples in particular is often regarded as controversial in South Africa’s black communities. Many people believe that women who love women can be “cured,” while homosexual men are often rejected as lost causes. Muholi’s efforts to share images of tenderness, care and love among women hits a sore nerve in South Africa.
Muholi’s works have traveled around the globe, with exhibitions introducing them to audiences beyond Africa. Shows in London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Boston, Houston, and now Berlin have not only furthered their career as a visual artist but have also increased the reach of the message Muholi wants to share. In South Africa, Muholi is a permanent fixture at the Zeitz MOCAA museum in Cape Town.
Zanele Muholi continues to document the struggles of queer identities in South Africa. But in the meantime, they also succeed in injecting their subjects with universally understood aesthetics. This way, their art becomes accessible to a wide audience both at home and abroad. Muholi’s photography can currently be seen at the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin until March 13, 2022.
Author: Sertan Sanderson
Born just outside Durban in 1972, Muholi has — through visual art that hinges on political activism — become a leader in the conversation on gender identity and sexual orientation in South Africa. But above all, Muholi’s works express confidence, joy and conviction in queer and trans Black identities.
Muholi, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, has won several awards for their work, including an Index on Censorship award in 2013, France’s prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2016, and an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society from the UK in 2018.
Muholi was barely 4 years old when the Soweto Uprising happened just outside Johannesburg. An estimated 176 schoolchildren were shot and killed by South Africa’s apartheid regime for protesting against the enforcement of the Afrikaans language in schools.
This image of schoolboy Hector Pieterson being carried away by his brother became the symbol of the Soweto Uprising
Those images of pain and death traveled around the world, galvanizing the global boycott movement against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Offering a contrast to the photos revealing to the world the Black victims of South Africa’s racist policies, Muholi’s contemporary work is part of a movement of empowerment through the arts in the country.
But Muholi’s work has also been criticized by Black South Africans, including former Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana, who once walked out of an exhibition showing Muholi’s photography in Johannesburg, calling it “immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.”
Muholi’s work highlights the vulnerability of gay and trans identities as much as it shows their pride
Even though South Africa became in 2006 the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage, this year has been marked by a wave of brutal hate crimes and murders against members of the LGBTQ community. Activists and non-governmental organizations, such as the Heinrich Böll Foundation, are decrying the inaction of the government, calling upon the state to enact the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, first drafted in 2016.
Still, Muholi’s outlook on their country remains positive: “We are a beautiful country. We have the most amazing and beautiful people, too. … We still live and we have hope that one day we’ll get it right.”
Muholi often prompts their subjects to look straight at the camera lens to build a sense of communion with the viewer
Stephanie Rosenthal, the director-general of the Gropius Bau museum in Berlin, shares that optimism, saying that Muholi’s work shows “how healing, empathy and empowerment can be accomplished despite collective trauma, and how photography can be used as an agent of reconstruction and of activism at the same time.”
Muholi stresses the importance of healing through their work as well. In a 2012 interview with the Village Voice, they said that everyone has “skeletons in their closet. I’m just a troubled human being, and I decided not to see a shrink, but instead use photography.”
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier
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