By Chioma Amadi-Kamalu
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2809

Zanele Muholi— ‘Nobody tells our story better than ourselves’

A new exhibition at the Tate Modern shines a light on the reality of life as a black LGBT+ person in South Africa
Issue 2809

Left: Ntozakhe II, Parktown 2016 Right: Qiniso, The Sails, Durban 2019

Zanele Muholi new exhibition at the Tate Modern is bold, emotional and an excellent example of how to blend visual art and activism.

This version of the exhibition, first shown in 2020 but then closing prematurely due to the pandemic, is an expanded and refined collection of Muholi’s work.

It covers a lot of issues that affect LGBT+ people worldwide but specifically focuses on the community that Muholi is part of in their home country, South Africa.

A trip around the exhibition leaves you with an enhanced understanding of the lives of black LGBT+ South Africans. The exhibition can be very serious and even upsetting since it shows such real and personal representations of peoples’ lives.

But the testimonials, affirmations and levels of intimacy running through it make the overall tone of the exhibition much more uplifting.

The layout of the exhibition is like a journey through Muholi’s practice.

There’s a range of works spanning from when they first rose to prominence in the early 2000s up until today. This helps give you a sense of how much Muholi’s practice has developed and the impact their artwork has had.

Muholi is well known as a photographer, especially for their self-portraits, and a room filled with a collection of these photos feels like the exhibition’s visual climax.

Muholi uses colour— mostly black—and different everyday objects to explore different aspects of their identity in creative and distinctive ways.

The exhibition draws some attention to the impacts of colonialism on LGBT+ politics, which is an issue across the continent. Before colonialism, there were always different LGBT+ identities in Africa.

The exhibition highlights this by using a timeline of events in the fight for LGBT+ rights and against colonialism in South Africa, which puts Muholi’s work into historical context.

Though this exhibition contains many great pieces, the room dedicated to the Faces and Phases series stood out to me. It’s an archive of portraits that puts a spotlight on the lesbians, trans and gender non-conforming people who make up Muholi’s community.

You see the variety in age and identity, the way people change through different phases of their lives and the personalities that shine through each photo.

There are gaps and spaces between the portraits as well. This has two meanings— first, to remember those who were in the archive and have since passed, and second, for those who have yet to be added.

In a video testimonial piece, a young trans man talks about his experience and how he found out about Muholi’s photography series “Faces and Phases”.

It introduced him to people going through similar experiences to his and helped with his transition overall. It is remarkable to see how a collection of artworks has had such a tangible impact on someone’s life.

Compared to other exhibitions I’ve been to covering similar subject matter, this one is quite different because of how closely intertwined Muholi’s art and activism is.

They don’t consider themself an artist. Instead, they describe themselves as a “visual activist” and that really shows. Muholi gives a lot to their community.

They let the exhibition’s subjects speak for themselves, and it’s obvious that they are a part of the community their art is about.

Their artworks both create and facilitate an LGBT+ community that they themselves are a part of. Zanele Muholi is at the Tate Modern in London until 26 January 2025.

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