ZANELE MUHOLI – A photographic dialogue on gender identity, political issues and the portrayal of black women in Visual Culture

For the third consecutive year, the Stedelijk Museum has chosen to honor Amsterdam Gay Pride with a selection of artworks and exhibitions that offer a personal insight, focusing specifically on feminism, gender identity and queer culture. For 2017, the Stedelijk Museum has staged the first solo exhibition in the Netherlands of the South-African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi. The exhibition entitled ‘Zanele Muholi’ will run from the 8th of July to the 22nd of October, aiming to materialize South African black and LGBTI visibility.

The exhibition consists of several exhibitory spaces with each showcasing a different series of pictures with a political or socio-cultural objective. The exhibition starts with Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness, 2015 to the present), which is Muholi’s latest on-going photographic series and arguably the most thought-provoking set of pictures of this year’s exhibition. The photographer chose to create a series of self-portraits in which she experiments with dramatic posing and lighting, to emphasize her gender and race. The portraits illustrate an exaggeratedly darker Muholi that is meant to epitomize her ‘blackness’ and encourage discussions on the portrayal of black women.

Concerning the series of self-portraits in Somnyama Ngonyama, the exhibition’s curator Hripsimé Visser claimed the following:

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 stigmatization and stereotyping.

In reaction to the curator’s claim, one must understand that Muholi’s self-portraits are not only about creating different versions of ‘blackness’ but rather about showcasing black women in a regal and critical-political manner in order to defy the negative stereotypes that have been created around black women in popular visual culture. The visitors are confronted with an overexposed nakedness, forcing them to consider or question their pre-adopted notions of aesthetic appeal.

One example of these visual-political reinventions of black women’s image is the self-portrait Ntozakhe II that shows Muholi in a toga, wearing a crown made of hair-donuts. She wears a tilted chin and exudes an aura similar to the Statue of Liberty. In Bester 2 she celebrates the underpaid and hardworking South-African woman like her own mother, who worked as a maid in a white household for forty-two years, by creating intricate hairpieces made of domestic materials and photographing herself in a fashionable manner. In Thulani II, Muholi gets political and uses her image to criticize the government for the murder and unjust treatment of mine workers in South Africa. What Zanele Muholi has done, is provide an aesthetically coherent image of the South-African black woman as a starting point to discuss the issues of existing aesthetic ideals in visual culture, and its negative stigmatization and stereotyping of black women.

However, celebrating the right and implications of being a black woman is not the only focus point of Muholi’s activism. In her own words, Muholi claims that her 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.

Muholi’s LGBT activism is seen through the Stedelijk Museum’s inclusion of two previous photographic series for the current 2017 exhibition: Brave Beauties and Faces and Phases. In addition to these photographic series, Muholi’s documentary ‘We Live in Fear (2003)’ has also been included by the museum. Brave Beauties is exhibited in a room full of pictures illustrating the art of the South African transgender community. In combination with the documentary ‘We Live in Fear’, exhibited in a different room, they both show the lives, pain, fear and creative festivities of the lesbian and transgender communities of South African.

Faces and Phases is Zanele Muholi’s oldest photographic series in the exhibition, having started in 2006. This series illustrates several portraits of what is considered to be a community of South African lesbian women. They are all openly gay women who have been documented throughout the years by the same artistic member of their community, Muholi herself.

This exhibition is about producing visuals to materialize the notion or consciousness of the existence of the marginalized lesbian and trans community in South Africa. It can be argued that ‘ZANELE MUHOLI’ is as much about art as she is about pushing a political agenda through the use of visual activism.

The exhibition creates an assembly of these portraits to be displayed on the museum’s walls with extensive documentation of hate crimes against lesbian and transgender women in South Africa. According to Muholi, visualizing the reports of hate crime is a way to strengthen already existing laws, by showing the government that you cannot claim or address the constitutional rights that are legally granted to the LGBT community without presenting images of how these rights are constantly being violated in the country.

ZANELE MUHOLI is a well-organized and thought-provoking exhibition that challenges the existing visual culture to a debate on its aesthetic preferences and negative portrayal of the black woman. More importantly, the exhibition aims to turn unheard voices and unseen realities into tangible historical testimonies, to increase black LGBTI visibility for those who exist, resist and persist in the non-western world.


November 25, 2019

Leave a Reply