Zanele Muholi Walks In With the Ancestors

“For the longest time, I resisted the label of artist,” the photographer Zanele Muholi said on a recent video call from Durban, South Africa. “I called myself a visual activist, because of the agenda I was pushing at the time — which I am still pushing, even now.”

Since the early 2000s, Muholi, 48, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” has documented the Black South African lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (L.G.B.T.I.) experience. Although South Africa was the first country in the world to enshrine the rights of lesbian and gay people in its 1996 constitution, social attitudes in the years after apartheid often lagged behind legal protections.

“I needed to have those visual conversations,” Muholi said. “I have always produced images responding to something, be it hate crimes or erasure.”

Muholi wants these pictures to capture the full range of Black L.G.B.T.I. lives. To shift social attitudes, Muholi said, their motto was: “We need to produce as many images as we can.”

Hundreds of Muholi’s stark but stylized photographs have been displayed around the world, including in major exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Now, a new career retrospective at Tate Modern in London will bring together more than 250 of Muholi’s works in the artist’s most extensive and high-profile show yet.

The show was set to open on Nov. 5, just days before England’s museums were shuttered in a second coronavirus lockdown. It is now slated to open on Dec. 3, running through June 6, 2021.

Gabi Ngcobo, an influential South African curator, said in an interview that Muholi worked in a “sensitive, provocative, tender and playful manner,” using the camera as “an instrument to excavate, sustain and affirm.”

Those qualities are clear in the works in the Tate exhibition, which range from the playful laughter of two women in “Sistahs,” a teasing, black-and-white bedroom scene, to “Aftermath,” a disturbing shot in which a woman cups her hands in front of her pubic area, a long scar running along the length of her thigh.

The first is joyful and intimate; the second evokes trauma. Drawn from the artist’s series “Only Half the Picture,” which introduced Muholi to the art world in 2003, these images capture the two poles in the artist’s early work.

The show also includes portraits from the ongoing series “Faces and Phases,” which tracks Muholi’s friends and comrades transitioning through gender and other identities, and series like “Somnyama Ngonyama,” in which Muholi turns the camera around to become the subject. It is a kind of visual diary dealing with issues of racism and photography’s history.

It was while working on “Somnyama Ngonyama” that Muholi changed their pronouns from “she” to “they.” The change was only partly about resisting the oppositional gender pronouns of “she” and “he,” Muholi said. Although most people understood the decision through the lens of “transition,” Muholi added, it was more complicated than that.

Using “they,” which can also signify a plural, showed that Muholi was not just an individual, but also part of a historical community of African forbears, they said. It showed, “I’m not coming alone,” Muholi added. “I walk in with my ancestors.”

Until the pronoun change, Muholi identified as a lesbian and engaged politically as one. The artist was a co-founder, with the activist Donna Smith, of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, the first Black lesbian organization in Johannesburg, in 2002.

Phindi Malaza, a Cape Town-based lesbian feminist activist who has known Muholi since the 1990s, said in an interview that, in the early stages of Muholi’s career, the photographer felt that “art wasn’t necessarily speaking that much about queer people, and lesbians specifically.”

“Zanele always had a camera, whether we were at Pride, or doing community engagements,” Malaza recalled, adding that long before the art world noticed the artist, Muholi was using photography to give “exposure to groups and communities that wouldn’t necessarily be on the agenda” of policymakers, white L.G.B.T.I. activists, or women’s groups.

Malaza said that, within South Africa’s women’s movement at the time, many groups were reluctant to prioritize the experience of lesbians, or to acknowledge how alienating predominantly white L.G.B.T.I. spaces could be for them if they were Black.

Yet Muholi’s work is not merely about asserting the presence of Black lesbians in a political sense. It is also about the complexity of L.G.B.T.I. lives. The 2005 series “Beloved” consists of five black-and-white photographs of two topless women in varying poses: lying side by side in bed, looking into each other’s eyes; one woman resting her head on the other’s torso; staring into the distance, or boldly at the camera.

In “TommyBoys,” a color photograph, two muscular figures in tracksuit pants sit on a tarmac. One, in a red T-shirt, sits with her hands folded against her chest, while next to her, the second uses her white vest to wipe something from her eyes. (“Tommy Boy” is a word used in South Africa, like “butch,” to refer to a masculine-presenting lesbian.)

Another black-and-white photograph in the exhibition at Tate shows the artist’s hairy legs, with their feet in fuzzy patterned slippers. This photograph is cheekily titled “Not Butch But My Legs Are.”

“Zanele was focusing on all the parts of Black lesbian women’s lives,” Malaza said. “Not just the spectacular parts, but the ordinary textures that they share with women who are not lesbian, showcasing that lesbians are normal women, not these mysterious things.”

This approach was already evident in their first solo show, in 2003, staged at the Johannesburg Art Gallery after Muholi graduated from the Market Photo Workshop. The exhibition, called “Visual Sexualities,” won rave reviews; two years later, Muholi received the Tollman Award for the artist’s “sensitive and intimate insight” into Black lesbian lives, according to a 2005 article in ArtThrob magazine, and it put the artist on the map.

Since then, Muholi has received many awards — including the FannyAnn Eddy accolade for contributing to the study of sexuality in Africa — and has mounted exhibitions around the world.

A heavy traveling schedule has shaped more recent works like “Somnyama Ngonyama,” which was shot in cities in Africa, Europe and North America over six years.

“‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ is about self, race, gender, experience, pain, expression. It’s about recent history,” Muholi said. It is also about how “people refuse to accept that we have problems with racism,” the artist added.

It is a highly introspective series that puts Muholi front and center.

“I needed to use my body, my face. I want to focus on me,” Muholi said. The introspection is at times personal, as in “Bester I,” a tribute to the artist’s mother, who died in 2009; other times, Muholi is reflecting on the medium of photography itself.

“Photography is a language of its own, with a specific baggage from history,” Muholi said, adding that it had been key in creating racist ideas about Black people, in academic texts and museum displays.

“I did not want to project another Black body the way that I have presented myself,” they said.

In one of the photos from the series, “Ntozabantu VI,” Muholi wears a tiara and an elaborate wig, and looks knowingly over their shoulder toward the camera. Muholi said this photo was a tribute to Jacqui Mofokeng, who became the first Black Miss South Africa in 1993, but who was mocked in the news media because she did not conform to conventional white beauty standards.

Another photo in the series, “Qiniso, the Sails, Durban” shows Muholi in profile, their hair festooned with Afro combs, and lips and eyelids whitened with toothpaste. The contrast between the artist’s black skin and whitened lips and lids is amplified in the white bathroom mat worn toga-style over one shoulder.

Throughout “Somnyama Ngonyama,” the artist’s skin appears darkened, and Muholi said they realized these images might, for some audiences, recall the racist practice of blackface, in which white actors would paint their faces and perform exaggerated and stereotypical postures.

Yet Muholi said that to see these images as blackface was a misreading. “It’s natural light and postproduction high contrast,” Muholi explained.

Like all the works in the Tate exhibition, these photos are asking the viewer to think about how they look at others — and how power shapes what they see.

“You don’t just produce images for show,” Muholi said. “It is beyond that.”

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