…an old friend (well, idol of mine) and tireless activist, the photographer Zanele Muholi, whom I wrote about two years ago, in September 2015, when her photos played a small but arresting part in a Pompidou Center exhibit. The current show, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, is full on splendid and all her.
Actually, the show is and isn’t all her, because in the past few years Muholi has made a project of training other young members of the Johannesburg LGBTI* community to use photos and videos to document not just the aftermath of hate crimes that continue to brutalize South African lesbians and transgenders, but also the joyous rituals and ceremonies that show the community EXISTS, and has strong ties to the non-LGBTI* community, family, friends, and churches.
The first room of photos in the exhibit represents her new-ish project (2015 on), Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the Dark Lioness”), a collection of self-portraits picturing different aspects of her being as a woman, as she experiences and envisions that. These portraits are large, formal, contrasty black and white photographs, absolutely stunning. In the portraits she is often in what we in the United States call “blackface” (a practice that also exists in South African history, though with slightly different connections and connotations). There are several full body portraits, but most are head and shoulders, often nude or draped, with her hair done exquisitely many different ways. (She comments in an accompanying video, as she prepares the hair of one of her friends/subjects, that she used to be a hairdresser.) The photos were taken in many places, including a number of cities in the United States, one might guess as she toured for appearances related to an earlier exhibit. They also, despite their formality, constitute a kind of diary. She intends to complete 365 of these portraits, most reflecting ideas or feelings or responses to events in her world or her day.
Another project in this generously large exhibit, Brave Beauties, is a terrific complement to the Dark Lioness photos. These are portrait photos of transgenders and gay men, facing the camera in gorgeous costumes, sometimes half nude, proud, provocative, flirtatious, beautiful.
Some posed after the funeral of a friend and community member. A recurrent theme in the stories swirling through the exhibit is the need to use funerals to celebrate and gather as well as grieve and weep. We see and hear in the videos that accompany the exhibit, and bring Muholi and her friends to life, the singing and dancing that we have come to love and revere in black South African popular and religious culture.
Back to Muholi as mentor and activist. The videos really do serve to narrate and integrate the multipart exhibit – but so does the spirit of Muholi’s work. Though her work includes formal portrait work in the aesthetic and philosophical traditions of world photography, her oeuvre is animated entirely by her passion for change, reform, liberation, justice, inclusion. She calls herself an “intimate” person, and that’s a nice way to understand the way she brings the intimacy and sensuality of private lives and relationships to her fight for her community, for courage, for resistance, for public causes that continue to demand our attention.
In a dialectic that should not surprise us, the global pushback against LGBTQI inclusion and liberation seemingly gains strength even as those communities around the world are feeling our own power and possibilities. In the United States, most of us did not envision a “president” appropriating that bully pulpit (bully indeed) to rally all the cruel forces in our society against the progress we have struggled for so effectively in recent decades. We don’t sit on a secure perch and look over at what is happening in South Africa, where gay marriage was legalized earlier than it was in the U.S. (2006).
To promote and secure progress in the face of violent repression, Muholi founded a further project called Inkanyiso (“Light”).
This project also draws out alliances and nurtures artists and writers with a strong web presence (inkanyiso.org). The Stedelijk exhibit includes wall boxes with printed selections from the WordPress blog, and a tabletop screen that allows you to scroll through the site right there; but even more exciting is just pulling the site up on your computer or phone and enjoying the whole thing when you want to. I do love the internet age. In fact, here is a link to the exhibit “trailer”: https://youtu.be/iXMWdqntdgI. You can get a sense of Muholi’s charisma.
The Stedelijk exhibit also reprises her ongoing “Faces and Phases” project; I felt like I was seeing old friends, with the added fascination of viewing some follow-up photos, as she revisits her subjects for photo shoots every few years.