November's Featured Artist: Zanele Muholi

“I’m reclaiming photography as a black female being. I’m calling myself a visual activist, whether I am included in a show or not, whether I am published or not. That’s my stance as a person, before anything else, before my sexuality and gender, because photography doesn’t have a gender.”

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi is a celebrated photographer and filmmaker from South Africa who is also an activist for the LGBTQI community in South Africa and globally. Muholi, born in 1972, grew up during Apartheid in the Umlazi township on the east coast of South Africa. As a black person, Muholi experienced significant oppression, but they (Muholi’s pronoun) also suffered from the way family history is fraught with painful memories that are either forgotten, ignored, distorted, and many times—erased. Muholi’s work is, in many ways, a response to the erasure of black histories and black memories that has been commonplace not only in South Africa, but around the world. For this reason, they consider themselves a “keeper of memories, a warden of truth.”

Muholi’s photographic work has centered around portraiture, with their ongoing expansive project—Faces and Phases—being the cornerstone of their career. Faces and Phases is both art and activism, as it features black individuals from the LGBTQI community in order to create a visual archive for a group of people that has historically been marginalized and excluded from the visual record. Of this project, Muholi states: “I’m basically saying we deserve recognition, respect, validation, and to have publications that mark and trace our existence.” This series, and much of their work, interrogates the violence carried out against the LGBTQI community in South Africa. Anti-gay violence is prevalent, despite the fact that South Africa’s 1996 constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and was the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage in 2006. Other series of note include Only Half the Picture, Beulahs, and Being.

More recently, Muholi has taken up self-portraiture as a means of introspection, therapy, and autobiography as they explore aspects of themselves. This project, too, is part of their mission to create a Black photographic archive. The series is titled Somnyama Ngonyama, which is Zulu for “Hail the Dark Lioness,” and features black-and-white images of Muholi that are just as piercing as they are captivating. The contrast in the images is increased so that their skin appears to be a dark shade of black that is deeper than their natural complexion. Muholi communicates that regardless of how dark one’s skin is, blackness is worthy of pride.

The Clark Collection features two of Zanele Muholi’s self portraits. Bhekezakhe (Parktown), 2016, Gelatin Silver Print, and Buzani (Parktown), 2016, Gelatin Silver Print.

Muholi is represented by Yancey Richardson. Learn more here.

Zanele Muholi's work is currently on exhibition until March 2021 at the Tate Modern in London.

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