Art in the Diaspora

Zanele Muholi’s ‘Eye Me’ Opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) is a visual activist who uses the camera to explore issues of gender identity, representation, and race. Often photographing their own body or members of their LGBTQ+ community in South Africa, Muholi calls attention to the trauma and violence enacted on queer people while celebrating their beauty and resilience. Activism is central to Muholi’s artistic practice, from their early work contending with the dangers of being queer in South Africa to their more recent work embracing their own blackness and gender expression.

Zanele Muholi, Zazi I & II, Boston (detail), 2019; Bader + Simon Collection; © Zanele Muholi
Zazi I & II, 2019, Bader + Simon Collection, Image courtesy of the artist and C&10

‘Eye Me’ is a compilation of photographs and sculpture ranging from 2002 to present day and forms as the first major exhibition of Muholi’s work on the West Coast thereby providing the opportunity for Bay Area audiences to experience the full range of the artist’s expansive project. The exhibition also serves as a way of celebrating and embracing the Black queer community in post-Apartheid South Africa with activism being the central point. With that said, Muholi’s portraiture is distinguished by an intimacy that could only be established through trust. This is due to Muholi’s artistic practice where they see their subjects as collaborators who partake in the process of creating the images, from the selection of the location to the clothing.

‘Eye Me’ begins with the artist’s first photographic series titled Only Half the Picture (2002–2006), which was a result of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, an organisation co-founded by Muholi in 2002. As part of the organisation’s work, Muholi traveled to several townships in South Africa to document survivors of related hate crimes committed against members of the queer community. These photographs point to violence, moments of intimacy, as well as hope and care the victims have for the very communities who committed these crimes of hate against them.

Zanele Muholi. 'Aftermath' 2004
Aftermath, 2004, From the Only Half the Picture series, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
600 x 395mm, Image courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey

In Muholi’s ongoing series Being, they photograph couples spending time together in everyday moments. Growing up, Muholi had no examples of Black queer couples and through Being they get to offer a positive and joyful representation of queer love. Through Brave Beauties (2014—ongoing), Muholi captures photographs of empowered transgender women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people. Although the poses are inspired by the visual language of magazine culture, the participants have agency in their own self-fashioning.

Tebogo Mokobane and Nhlanhla, Queensgate, from the Being series, Parktown 2007, 76.5 x 76.5cm,
Image courtesy of Stevenson

The portraits in Muholi’s Faces and Phases series (2006 to present) initiated a larger endeavor to create a visual archive of Black queer life for present and future generations. Each photograph is a traditional, black-and-white portrait of an individual, in which each sitter chooses their own pose, setting and dress. This series comprises of 500 portraits in total and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will present 36 of these portraits for this exhibition. Complemented by a selection of video interviews from participants, this growing collective portrait gives voice to members of the artist’s community and their individual stories.

black and white photograph
Tumi Nkopane, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg, from the Faces and Phases series, 2010

Muholi also turns the camera on their own self and explores self-portraiture in the deeply personal and political series titled Somnyama Ngonyama, Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness, which the artist began exploring in 2012. In these iconic photographs, Muholi experiments with taking on different personas and archetypes, transforming everyday objects into props and attire that reference South African sociopolitical history, contemporary culture or personal events from their own life. The exhibition will also include the 2010 documentary film Difficult Love, which Muholi co-directed with Peter Goldsmid. Highly personal, intimate and thought provoking, the film looks at the experiences of Black lesbians in South Africa through interviews with Muholi and their friends and colleagues. In the painting and sculpture category, the artist uses bold color and intricate patterning to investigate questions around representation.  The exhibition will also include one bronze sculpture. The exhibition opens on the 18th of January 2024 until the 11th of August 2024.

Somnyama III, Paris, 2014. From the series Somnyama Ngonyama, gelatin silver print, 33 x 24 1/2 inches.
Somnyama III, Paris, 2014. From the series Somnyama Ngonyama, gelatin silver print, 33 x 24 1/2 inches, Image courtesy of Yancey Richardson

Lelethu Sobekwa was born in Gqeberha, South Africa. She holds a BA Honours in English and an MA in Creative Writing with distinction from Rhodes University. Lelethu currently writes for Art News Africa.

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