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Photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi: 'Art can save lives, everything else is secondary'

Zanele Muholi is not yet a sounding name in our country. However, what the South African photographer and visual activist has been doing for more than 20 years is groundbreaking. In extremely stylized, powerful black-and-white images, Muholi – himself black and non-binary – puts lesbians and trans people in front of the camera. From an insider's perspective, the scenes radiate vulnerability and vitality at the same time.

Muholi was born in South Africa in 1972, when apartheid still had a firm grip on the country. And although the 1996 constitution guaranteed equality for all, racial delusion and violence against the LGBT+ community are far from gone today.

With penetrating portraits, Muholi gives this community a face and a place in South African society. In addition, the representation of the black body is a recurring theme. By depicting the subjects frontally and without props, the photographer draws a parallel with images from the colonial era, as a scientific curiosity.

Feeling of frustration

In the meantime, Muholi can present beautiful letters of nobility. With a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London in the winter of 2020, the artist completely broke open the doors of an established institution. Earlier, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam also devoted an exhibition to Muholi's work, just like numerous other museums in Europe and North America.

Recently, Uitstalling Art Gallery exhibited 30 self-portraits from the series Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for 'greet the dark lioness'). Using everyday and found objects, the photographer uses his own body as a canvas to focus on personal aspects such as colour, gender and representation.

The fact that Muholi simultaneously plays with classical painting and fashion photography makes the work inviting and intriguing. "When I started photography myself, I hardly saw art that met my personal needs," Muholi says in a video call from Miami.

‘So I decided to make my own images of black LGBT+ people. Homophobes, transphobes and queerphobes got their say in the mainstream media, people who deny the existence of the lgbti+ community. Because I didn't want to contribute to that, I had to produce work that did benefit me.'

So I started my career as an artist from a sense of frustration. It was a matter of following therapy or creating it yourself, and therapy was not an alternative at the time. Photography saved me.”

You describe yourself as a "visual activist". Explain.

Zanele Muholi: When I talk about visual activism, I'm talking about how someone uses images to address political and personal issues. How can art save the world? It is that question that matters to me. Art can be a means of content or an expression of our own expressions. It depends on what the artist wants to do with his work.

When I make art, I think about how I can save lives. Perhaps everything else is secondary. I make images of lgbti+ people and about the invisibility of black bodies in galleries and museums. In my country – and many other countries – there is still a need for these subjects.

So for me, visual activism is about pushing a political agenda. Take my photo series Somnyama Ngonyama. It is about the invisibility of black bodies in galleries and museums, about the need to occupy this space.

So for you, art is political?

Muholi: Man is as much a political as a creative being. I'm not talking about the politics of, say, people on strike, but about the right to exist of black people in the gallery. Look, there are several galleries and museums where black artists have been given space. But why is it that we still need more visibility and more presence in those spaces?

Why do we still lack resources while we work our ass off and share our talent with people all over the world? That to me is the political aspect: saying that we exist, across borders. Everything in my work revolves around that invisibility.

For example, when I speak as black, there is always excitement. Because a black does something remarkable, because it's rare. So the fact that a black female body is breaking ground becomes political.

In the ongoing photo series Faces and Phases you have now placed 300 lesbian women in front of the lens in your studio. In Brave Beauties you do the same with trans women, but on location. What do you want to say with these images?

Muholi: Countries like Belgium, France, and the United States— parts of the free world, so to speak— have a certain pride. A pride in their inhabitants and the contributions they make to their country. South Africa is also a free country, but our government or the constitution— which is the best in the world, by the way— cannot just talk about the lgbti+ community.

We need something tangible to show that we are talking about people who feel different. Some are born that way, others discover themselves along the way. We need books and art and objects that represent that existence.

Faces and Phases is my visual document of the lgbti+ community in South Africa. My series are my responsibility and also my contribution to South Africa. To say: here we are. And if the presence of LGBTI+ people is ever considered normal, these images will always be that point of reference. They are my contribution to making our world a better place.

Because make no mistake: our queer bodies endure violence, exclusion and an endless disrespect. There are still many issues to be addressed before people can just be themselves. As a visual activist I try to say leave people alone, respect them, acknowledge them and ask questions if you don't understand something. Because these lgbti + people have done you no wrong.

Not models, but participants

How did you like the people you brought in front of your camera?

Muholi: The persons I portray with faces are no strangers to me. They are people I already work with or who are openly part of the lgbti+ community. I don't like working with strangers or with people who are still in the closet. Whoever is in my photos knows why they are there.

Are those people not in danger?

Muholi: The people portrayed in my work are not 'models' but 'participants'. We are not outsiders to each other. I speak from the inside, as an insider in a community I love most. A community where everyone is in danger because we never know what will happen.

But we can no longer be guided by that fear or negativity. We should not think about the possible risks every time we want to make something beautiful. We must push on, continue our work as educators and as social workers. In fact, we have to negotiate space all the time, while straight people don't have to.

In the Somnyama Ngonyama series, you point the camera at yourself for the first time. Why are you doing that?

Muholi: I've photographed a lot of people, but it's also very important for photographers to remember who they are. Some photographers are uncomfortable in front of the camera, but they do shoot other people. Why don't they like that?

So in Somnyama Ngonyama I put myself in the front line. At the same time, I try to archive the life of my community, just as Fases and phases and Brave beauties are aimed at archiving.

The images from that series refer to my country, to my ancestors and to everyone who came before me and never had the chance to speak for themselves and be seen. Because I get the chance to show my images all over the world, they are also about how we have been treated and felt.

You identify as non-binary and choose the pronouns them/them. I can imagine that this is not obvious.

Muholi: I know the world is fixated on that "them" in me. For me it is also about the existence of my ancestors. Everything I do or what I am is the result of my coming out of someone's body. So the “I” speaking is about a deeper core spirituality, rather than about gender.

I see you. Behind the face that now looks at me are other layers: your mother and father, grandmother and grandfather. That 'them' is about acknowledging all the forces that make us who we have become. Perhaps it is not my voice that speaks to you, but that of my great-grandmother who moves with me.

You also see those dualities in Somnyama Ngonyama. There are portraits in that series that I don't even recognize myself. I know what was going on when I made them, but they still grab me. It's like walking somewhere and you feel the physical presence of someone chasing you that turns out not to be there at all. Those other 'I', they are the 'they/them' in me.

I know people get confused sometimes. But I'm not in transition, it's about the presence of my ancestors in everything I do. It's about me embracing the spirit and spirituality.

Your art is shown in galleries and museums around the world. Does your work also have an impact in your home country?

Muholi: My art is shown in many places, so it could even have an impact in Belgium. I still hear about black people who cannot express themselves in the West, even though they were born in those countries. Their work is not documented, galleries and museums ignore it. So when we talk about our existence as an artist, it shouldn't be about Africa. It should be about the immediate space someone occupies.

How does your community accept the black artists who are unlikely to receive support? Who are Belgian and black, who speak the language but are not counted in history? It has nothing to do with Africa. This should appeal to all of us, as human beings, as concerned citizens.

(on fire) Yes, this work was made by an African. But the question must be: how many galleries were open to change? How many museums employ black people? How are they documented in your country?

Racism remains a global problem for black people, even in the countries where their parents or grandparents toiled. We are talking lightly about my work, but what happens in the educational system, in medical departments, in family situations? That's what my art is about.

4 februari 2023, Len Buggenhout voor Mo* Magazine


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