Raw & Regal: Zanele Muholi at the Tate Modern

Raw & Regal: Zanele Muholi at the Tate Modern

Raw. Elegant. Powerful.

Zanele Muholi is celebrated worldwide for their politically charged photography. Carving out a space for those whose narratives have traditionally been written out of history, Muholi’s oeuvre explores the stories of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex lives in South Africa. Fortunately, the phenomenal photographer has returned to the Tate Modern (Jun 6 - Jan 26) with over 300 photographs in their arsenal. 

Zanele Muholi, Khumbulani II Room 2005, Hotel Riu Times Square New York 2022.
Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

Gazing directly down the camera lens, the intense expressions belonging to Muholi’s subjects tend to imprint themselves on the viewer's psyche. With a keen eye for individuality, Muholi distinguishes each photographic series from the next. This is the case for Being; a series of tender images depicting couples who challenge heteronormative stereotypes and taboos. As well as the archival portrait series Faces and Phases, which has grown to comprise hundreds of portraits of Black lesbians, transgender people and gender non-conforming individuals from South Africa and beyond. The participants’ names, the places where the photographs were taken and, sometimes, individual testimonies detailing the injustices they have suffered, accompany each image.

Born in 1972 in Umlazi, Muholi grew up at the height of apartheid, and witnessed the racial segregation of apartheid and its lingering effects when the election of a bi-racial coalition government in 1994 called for the end of apartheid. But the damage continues to weigh down the population, including the LGBTQIA denominations, who are tragically subjected to harassment, aggression and horrific violence like 'corrective rape'.

In Muholi's critically acclaimed first solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004, Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture, the artist presented anonymous images of survivors of rape and hate crimes. Menstrual blood flowed across a sanitary towel, a Black woman strapped on a white dildo, a silhouette showed a couple making love, and bare skin was slashed with scares. The lineup demonstrated how beauty and suffering could coexist in one frame, and multiple lifetimes. “The series is more about intimacy, privacy and body politics within our community, rather than about specific individuals,” wrote Muholi at the time. 

Zanele Muholi, ID Crisis 2003. Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

While South Africa was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation with a 1996 post-apartheid constitution, the LGBTQIA+ community remains a target for violence and prejudice to this day. South Africa’s struggle against systemic racism and discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community makes Muholi's work all the more prescient. The photographic series Only Half the Picture, which depicts the complexities of gender and sexuality for the queer community.

Their practice inspires viewers with allusions to love, intimacy and the trauma experienced by their subjects. Situated within the divisive paradigms of both racial and queer activism, Muholi’s oeuvre challenges us to look beyond social categorisation and see the humanity within. It must be noted that, in spite of fierce oppression, the LGBTQIA+ tangents in South Africa are thriving hubs of joy and solidarity. Their exuberance is also present in Muholi's photographs, which contrast dichotomies like celebration and mourning, joy and pain, power and vulnerability. 

The tactile pathos held by each picture is a reclamation of autonomy, personal narrative and individuality from those who have co-opted and denied it. The Tate exhibition offers a refreshing dose of reality for Western visual culture, which sadly lacks authentic representation. Showcasing work charting the photographer’s entire career, it sheds a light on what it means to be a visual activist carving space for contemporaries while also facing debilitating repression. 

Zanele Muholi, Manzi I, West Coast, Cape Town, 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

Often turning the camera on themself, Muholi encourages viewers to address their own misconceptions, and thereby, creates a shared sense of understanding and solidarity. Their acclaimed series of dramatic self-portraits entitled Somnyama Ngonyama (‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ in isiZulu), interweaves scouring pads, latex gloves, rubber tires and cable ties with dynamic poses. By transforming quotidian materials into politically loaded props, they force us to view the mundane every day from a Black queer perspective. It's a somewhat unsettling experience that motivates essential conversations around labour, racism, Eurocentrism and sexual politics. 

Muholi's commitment to the collective well-being of the LGBTQIA+ community is celebrated in the final space of the exhibition. From images of protest to pride marches, it draws attention to global movements as well as the Muholi Art Institute. A self-funded initiative, it was established in Cape Town in 2021, and offers residencies, studio and exhibition spaces for up-and-coming creatives from underserved backgrounds in South Africa. It's a touching tribute to Muholi's peers, legacy and desire to improve the world around them. 

Zanele Muholi, Bona, Charlottesville 2015. Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

Altogether, the exhibition reads as a visual diary of Muholi's journey into the traumas and delights of people's lived experiences. It's gratifying, captivating and poignant. There are moments of self-possession and intrigue, as sitters glance towards and away from the camera. From aesthetics, colours, composition and lighting, Muholi's works exude political undertones while achieving a sensual regal quality often lost in activist pieces. You leave feeling honoured and humbled to have explored an often misrepresented world which rarely receives its rightful appreciation. 


Title image. Zanele Muholi, Yaya Mavundla, Parktown, Johannesburg 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi