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Her mission is plural. Her pronouns are they/them/theirs. South African visual activist Zanele Muholi re-writes the stories of Black LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Agender, Asexual) living in South Africa and beyond, “for the world to know of their resistance and existence”. Positive and vivid portraits of mis-represented communities that remains a target for prejudice, brutality and violence. To proudly declare that “the Other” are not alone. They exist.

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Tate Modern presents the first major UK survey (until 6 June 2021) of photographer, filmmaker, activist Zanele Muholi. While the show is is currently closed, you can read the exhibition guide, watch the interview with Zanele Muholi “In my world, every human is beautiful”, or explore their practice through three photographic series on Tate Modern

From the early 2000s, their work documents, with love, compassion, dignity and courage, the truths and realities of the ignored souls, to bring change in spaces that are homo-trans-queer-phobic. Muholi’s collaborative activity and collective representationof connected bodies is a form of activism. In 2002, they co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organization which provided a safe space for women. Later, in 2009, they launched the Inkanyiso collective - which means The Light in isiZulu (Muholi’s first language) - a media platform which features LGBTQIA+ people living in South Africa.

Their first series Only Half the Picture (2002–6) documents survivors of hate crimes, rapes and lesbian murders in South African’s township. It’s all about skin, scars, and sexuality. The Black LGBTQIA+community's lovers and friends show the private spaces they share and freely express their love for each other. “I’m using visuals as a way of creating awareness”, Muholi plainly states.

 

Zanele Muholi, ID Crisis, 2003, gelatin silver print on paper, 353 × 480 mm support, secondary: 454 × 580 mm, Courtesy Tate.

 

Not the beauty but “the need of documenting the reality of people who deserved to be heard and seen”, not subjects but participants, not superficiality but the kindness that comes from within are at the core of their tender and bold photographies. Powerful, brazen, joyful, astonishing: these deeply-saturated photographs reclaim their blackness and celebrate the black bodies.

 

Zanele Muholi, Qiniso, The Sails, Durban, 2019.Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

 

Revealing the pain of other people, Muholi wants to deal with her pain too and to praise her ancestry. With the ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama (2012), presented as self-projections, they draw back to historical moments, apartheid histories of exclusion and racism - standing in front of the camera, with their gaze confronting the viewer. These photographs are often taken in different locations - away from home, when Muholi started to travel internationally - with variable light conditions and items but with indomitable strength.

The Series Brave Beauties (2014-ongoing) is of transgender women who were former beauty queens. Being absolutely stunningly beautiful, they just be.

 

Zanele Muholi, Yaya Mavundla, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2014, part of Brave Beauties, Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

 

Faces and Phases (2006), black and white brave portraits of lesbians, transmen and gender non-conforming bodies which become one whole biography, a living archive. Through many images of the same individuals, over the course of a number of years, you can see how people change, age, transition and how they “queer” the public space. 

Because existence come with a visibility that is positive.

 

Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases, 2007–2013, Courtesy of the Artist.

 

Cover image Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016. © Courtesy of Zanele Muholi and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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