Zanele Muholi's new exhibition is an affirmation for queer black women

Zanele Muholi, Durban 2018
Zanele Muholi, Durban 2018

She’s among South Africa’s most famous and most exhibited artists. Now Zanele Muholi is exhibiting a new solo installation in Johannesburg – an ode to and celebration of queer visibility. Nickita Maesela got to experience the work.

‘Let us celebrate womxn for 365 days, not just once a year,” says activist and artist Zanele Muholi over the phone. The renowned visual artist is in Germany where their latest work is on show.

Thirteen years after the first installation and a black queer revolution continues to be told through the Umlazi-born artist’s work, Faces and Phases 13, which opened at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg on July 20.

I had the honour of experiencing the exhibition on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, which became a journey of reflection and affirmation for me. The space, a room of white walls, takes on the responsibility of supporting a sea of black-and-white portraits in white frames. No names, no words, just photographs doing the profound work of making the black queer people in our country visible.

Beyond seeing familiar faces such as Cape Town activist and writer Funeka Soldaat, I was divinely captured by the portrait of Pastor Z Zungu, a transgender man. Overwhelmed, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the communion of his power and grace depicted in one image, creating conversations about the intersections of identity and spirituality.

Boitumelo Mnguni, KwaThema 2017PHOTOS: zanele muholi
Tinashe Wakapilla, Durban 2018
Thembela Dick, Durban 2018
Pastor Z Zungu, Durban 2018

Muholi’s work takes us on an expedition that holds space for the reflection on where the activism of the art has travelled for 13 years, but also shows clearly how much still needs to be done until black queer people are able to visibly exist in a world where they are free of the shackles of a homophobic and transphobic society.

At the entrance of the exhibition is a wall where visitors have left love notes for Muholi.

“I am who I am because of your inspiration and I admire your work Zanele Muholi. With love, #YourNextPhotographer,” wrote one visitor.

Muholi’s work has carried an ocean of queer peoples’ hopes for liberation and belief in themselves to create and disrupt oppressive systems such as white supremacy and heteronormativity, bringing both light and empowerment to a very dark and painful world.

“Being queer means love and being in love means being able to be seen. We need a vast black queer arts and culture archive that will speak to generations to come, showing our worthiness and greatness,” said Muholi when asked about how they have managed to remain motivated in consistently growing this piece of work.

Faces and Phases came to life in 2006, which was 10 years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the South African Constitution. The project started with one black-and-white portrait of Busi Sigasa, a friend and colleague of Muholi, a poet, activist and a survivor of a hate crime of homophobic rape, who passed on at the age of 25 in 2007. This is a narrative that many within the African LGBTIQ+ community and allies know about, which devastatingly is still ongoing.

“We need to educate people who are ignorant about our life stories, they are just as important as any other South Africans,” says Muholi.

Once a year we supposedly celebrate womxn through capitalist and political campaigns, and agendas highlighting our voices, well at least some of them, for one month. This is against the backdrop of reports of high rates of sexual violence and murder of womxn at the hands of domestic partners flooding headlines and social media timelines.

In all our multitudinous identities as womxn, our daily struggle for survival surely cannot be captured by one month in the year.

The world-renowned visual activist’s work continues to raise awareness for pressing social justice issues in today’s world, with a focus on South Africa, and has photographed more than 500 black lesbians, gender-nonconforming individuals and transgender men.

Faces and Phases lives as a visual and literal archive of Africa’s LGBTIQ+ community.

  • Faces and Phases 13 runs until August 30 at the Stevenson Gallery in Rosebank
  • The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and on Saturdays from 10am to 1pm
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