This summer, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam mounts the debut museum solo in the Netherlands of the South African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi (1972, Umlazi, Durban).
From an ‘insider position’, Muholi photographs the black lesbian and transgender community in South Africa. Starting with her very first work, Only Half the Picture, (2006), her arresting, powerful and sometimes witty images have focused eyes on a community that, while it has been constitutionally protected since 1996, remains at risk of horrendous abuse, discrimination and ‘curative’ rape. Muholi: “We’ve lost so many people to hate crimes… you never know if you’ll see someone again the next day.”
Making its Dutch premiere is Muholi’s latest series Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Black Lioness, 2015 to the present). A series of self-portraits, this body of work marks a radical new step in her oeuvre. Often experimenting with dramatic poses and lighting, Zanele turns the camera on herself, capturing the multiple roles that she assumes as a black lesbian woman. Through the use of high-contrast black and white tonal values, Muholi exaggerates her skin tone to emphasize her ‘blackness’. Curator Hripsimé Visser: “Her self-portraits are profoundly confrontational yet witty, and searingly emotional, too. Through an inventive manipulation of props and lighting, Muholi creates historical, cultural and personally inspired versions of ‘blackness’. With this, she defies stereotypical images of the black woman and speaks to current debates about stigmatisation and stereotyping.”
The Stedelijk Museum also presents a comprehensive selection of works from two other important series: Faces and Phases, and Brave Beauties. Also in the show is a projection of the documentary We Live in Fear (2013), and one of the exhibition galleries has been transformed into a documentary space for Inkanyiso, (Zulu for ‘the one who brings light’), the multi-media internet platform that Zanele Muholi founded in 2009 to create a visual history of LGBTQI communities.
For her series Faces and Phases (2006 to the present) Muholi makes emotionally charged, uncompromising portraits of lesbians. In her book of the same name, published in 2014, the images are accompanied with texts based on interviews that speak to the jeopardous reality of living in a homophobic society. Many of the photos are classic shots of self-aware yet vulnerable women and, in Zanele’s words: “comprise both a visual statement and an archive, and chronicle, map, and preserve what is often an invisible community.” In making this series, Muholi invites the women she photographs to feel like active participants in her project, and to explore their lesbian or transgender identity. Over the years, she has followed a number of her sitters, and one of the show’s centrepieces is a vast, wall-filling montage of their portraits.
As a young woman, Zanele Muholi was a hairdresser, and made the move to photography after taking the Market Photo Workshop, a photo training course established by the celebrated South African photographer David Goldblatt in Johannesburg for young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hair and fashion, or at least an awareness of apparel and presentation, would continue to play a key part in Muholi’s work. The photographic sequence Brave Beauties (2014 to the present) is an ode to the seductive art and extravaganza of transgenders, with explicit references to fashion and glamour shoots. In the series Somnyama Ngonyama she plays with the highly intricate African hairstyles that often correlate with culture and identity, by sporting hair creations fashioned from the most banal household items like clothes pegs or scouring sponges. This series is also ongoing, and on completion will consist of 365 self-portraits, one for each day of the year.
About the Artist
In the Netherlands, the work of Zanele Muholi was previously seen in group shows, and is represented in various Dutch collections, including that of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Muholi’s self-appointed mission is: 'to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond'. She is the recipient of numerous prestigious prizes for her work and, in 2013, was awarded the Prins Claus Prize. Muholi lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Zanele Muholi: Artist-in-Residence at BijlmAIR
Prior to her solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Zanele Muholi will be artist-in-residence at BijlmAIR in Amsterdam Southeast, where she will work on her most recent series of self-portraits, Somnyama Ngonyama. BijlmAIR is an artist-in-residence run by CBK Zuidoost, in partnership with Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Bradwolff Projects. Every year, each of these art institutes invites an international artist to live and work in the BijlmAIR studio in Amsterdam Southeast. This year, the Stedelijk Museum selected the South African artist Zanele Muholi.