GL STRAND presents the first major survey in Denmark of internationally recognized South African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi. Muholi came to prominence in the early 2000s with photographs that tells the stories of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex lives in South Africa. In the exhibition at GL STRAND more than 100 photographs are brought together to present the full breadth of Muholi’s career to date, from their very first body of work Only Half the Picture, to their on-going series Somnyama Ngonyama. These works challenge dominant ideologies and representations, presenting the participants in their photographs as fellow human beings bravely existing in the face of prejudice, intolerance and often violence.
During the 1990s, South Africa underwent major social and political change. The country’s 1996 post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation; yet, today, the LGBTQIA+ community continues to experience widespread violence and persecution.
In their early series Only Half the Picture (2002-2006), Muholi captures the complexity of experiences within the queer community: moments of love and intimacy are placed alongside images that allude to intense, traumatic events in the lives of the participants. In the same period, Muholi also began working on a visual archive of portraits, Faces and Phases, a major work that commemorates and celebrates Black lesbians, trans people and gender non-conforming individuals. Each participant looks directly at the camera, challenging the viewer to hold their gaze, while individual testimonies capture stories and memorialize those who have passed away. Over 500 images and testimonies form a living and growing archive of this community in South Africa and further afield.
The exhibition includes several other key series: Brave Beauties celebrates empowered non-binary people and trans women, many of whom have won Miss Gay Beauty pageants. Being is a set of tender images of couples which affirms same-sex love, while challenging prevailing stereotypes and taboos. Within each of these series, Muholi tells collective as well as individual stories of shared triumphs, kinship and mourning. The images challenge preconceived notions of deviance and victimhood, encouraging viewers to address their own misconceptions and creating a shared sense of understanding and solidarity.
In 2012 Muholi began their acclaimed series of dramatic self-portraits entitled Somnyama Ngonyama (‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ in English). Turning the camera on themself, the artists adopt different poses, characters and archetypes to address issues of race and representation. From scouring pads and latex gloves to rubber tires and cable ties, everyday materials are transformed into politically loaded props and costumes. The resulting images explore themes of labour, racism, Eurocentrism and sexual politics, often commenting on events in South Africa’s history and Muholi’s experiences as a South African black queer person traveling abroad. By enhancing the contrast in the photographs, Muholi also emphasises the darkness of their skin tone, reclaiming their blackness with pride and re-asserting its beauty.
Exhibition is organised by Tate Modern in collaboration Kunstforeningen GL STRAND, Copenhagen and Bildmuseet at Umeå University. Curated by Anne Kielgast, Chief Curator, Kunstforeningen GL STRAND, Yasufumi Nakamori, Senior Curator, International Art and Sarah Allen, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern, London.
August 31 Zanele Muholi will talk on activism and photography at the International Photographers’ Stage in Copenhagen. Read more
Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban in 1972 and lives in Johannesburg. They studied at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, and Ryerson University, Toronto. Co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, and founder of Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual media, Muholi is also an honorary professor at the University of the Arts Bremen, Germany. Solo exhibitions of Muholi’s work have been hosted around the world, including at the Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg (2012); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015); Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (2017); Autograph ABP, London (2017-) and Museo de Arte moderno de Buenos Aires (2018). Muholi has won numerous awards. Somnyama Ngonyama was shown at the 58th Venice Biennale (2019); Faces and Phases was shown at dOCUMENTA 13 (2012) and the 55th Venice Biennale (2013).
Muholi’s pronouns are they, them, their.