Biennale of Sydney

Zanele Muholi

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Zanele Muholi

Born in Durban, South Africa
Lives and works in Durban and Johannesburg, South Africa

Visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi presents three bodies of work that look at the politics of race, gender and sexuality: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness; Faces and Phases; and Brave Beauties.

Brave Beauties is an ongoing series featuring Transwomen. It was conceptualised and brought to life in 2014, the year of South Africa’s 20th anniversary of democracy. The series acknowledges the radical transformation of South African society even though many shadows remain, especially in terms of crimes against the LGBTQI community. Many of the participants in the series have won community-based beauty pageants. These pageants are a way of creating awareness of the histories and experiences of LGBTQI communities through cultural activities, including music and dance performances. The participants in Brave Beauties are from different parts of South Africa, and their portraits were taken mainly in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Faces and Phases is a commemoration and celebration of black lesbians, Transgender individuals and gender non-conforming people from South Africa and beyond. Muholi embarked on this project in 2006. To date, more than 500 portraits are part of this series. Collectively, the portraits are an act of visual activism, depicting participants of various ages, backgrounds and at different stages in their lives. This gallery of images proffers a powerful statement about the similarities and diversity that exist within the human race. Faces and Phases started months before the Civil Union Act was passed in 2006, legalising same-sex marriage in South Africa. Muholi was aware of the absence of this community from visual history. Choosing to photograph people they know, the artist has maintained these relationships across time, producing follow up images of some participants in different periods in their lives. Muholi continues to introduce the audience to new participants, as this is a living archive.

Somnyama Ngonyama features self-portraits taken in the many countries and cities Muholi has visited across the world. Muholi employs various materials, often common or linked to the specific location, in an effort to reflect the journey and explore their own image and possibilities as a black individual responding to contemporary and historical racisms in today’s global society. The artist states: 'I am producing this photographic document to encourage people to be brave enough to occupy space, brave enough to create without fear of being vilified ... To teach people about our history, to re-think what history is all about, to re-claim it for ourselves, to encourage people to use artistic tools such as cameras as weapons to fight back.'

The artist describes Somnyama Ngonyama as a personal approach, taken as a visual activist to confront the politics of race and to produce a personal photographic archive. It is a statement of self-presentation through portraiture. Experimenting with different characters and archetypes in these photos, Muholi portrays themselves in high contrast to ensure the black face and its details become the focal point, ‘forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure’.

Text courtesy the artist