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Zanele Muholi: The Key to Survival is Defiance

by Rachel Vancelette for Urban Mindz

With a major exhibition set to open at London’s Tate Modern in April 2020, South Africa’s ardent, powerful visual artist and community activist, photographer Zanele Muholi, is educating, motivating and helping heal a life in South Africa few truly realize exists. Born in 1972, Muholi’s most formidable work is with that of South Africa’s lesbian community and her 200 portraits of this mostly invisible world in which perpetrated violence is an everyday threat. She uses herself in much of her photography, because she fears for anyone who dares to expose themselves to the harassment, brutality and vile discrimination it would bring.

It seems there is a terrible disconnect between what the government espouses as equality and what it upholds for anyone who is not heterosexual. Invisibility, bigotry and hate crimes, including “corrective rape” is a common occurrence. For her defiant stance, Muholi has been harassed, her apartment broken into to steal photographic documentation, and she continues to be reviled and tormented by authorities as she travels to continue her quest of exposure.

Using the traditional African head wrap (dhuku) and other head coverings in unexpected ways as a potent symbol for the misery created by colonialism and apartheid’s injustice and brutality, Muholi has photographically created an archive for future generations. In her fight against continued inequality, persecution and violence, the camera has become her powerful weapon of choice, and she is creating a visual record of those whose gender identity choices, particularly women, are out of the norm. The symbolism and paradox of meaning held by the head wrap, which served as a uniform of identity for slave owners, represents the enslavement of women. In the 17th century, authorities in slave-owning countries mandated by law its use as a clear definition of position, because the races were becoming intermixed and skin color was no longer a concise identifier for officials. During the Anti-Apartheid battle for equality, these significant traditional head scarves reemerged as symbols of celebration and pride and have never gone out of fashion.

With her creative, amazing head coverings, Muholi has created a depth of representational, emblematic meanings coming from her deep personal passion and pain. Among all of her amazing photographs are some examples: Zanele wearing a miner’s hat and goggles to memorialize 34 striking miners killed by police, and her head covered in plastic wrapping that once held together her suitcase. She says in her bio at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, “I was thinking as you cross borders, the racial profiling that happens, which has to do with who you are, the colour of your skin, the questions you’re asked and the comments you get.” In another photo, after 24 hours of being finally allowed to enter a hotel room, the photo has her head covered by a mass of yarn. “I just felt so tangled and confined,” she says, “confused and angry.”

Inspired by her own experience, in another photo, Zanele is lying naked on inflated plastic bags representing large fibroids removed in an awful surgery. And in one of the most potent depictions, Muholi uses her face to reflect horrific pain in a photo with rubber hoses and another with tires around her neck, referencing the still rarer, but ongoing practice of “necklacing,” in which offenses are punished by being burned alive with a rubber tire around the neck which is then set on fire. Often deepening the color of her skin and adding white lips in her self-portraits, it is reminiscent of performers’ use of blackface begun after the Civil War meant to demean and dehumanize. In this way, Zanele adds to the many layers of suggestive meaning she pours into her photography.

From a Facebook post, Muholi writes, “Too often I find we are being mimicked, and distorted, by the privileged other." “We are here; we have our own voices; we have our own lives.” In this regard, the photographer wants to “teach people about our history, to rethink what history is all about, to reclaim it for ourselves, to encourage people to use artistic tools such as cameras as weapons to fight back.” Sometimes at the edge of militancy with her visual advocacy demanding true equality and removal of stigma for the beloved marginalized groups she serves, Muholi brings a visual dialogue and a light to a mostly hidden humanitarian disgrace.


Among her dozens of exhibitions:

Muholi represented her country at this year's Venice Biennale in the pavilion show, May You Live in Interesting Times. Some solo exhibitions of Muholi's work include Vukani/Rise, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool (2015) and Somnyama Ngonyama, [translated as Hail the Dark Lioness], Yancey Richardson, New York City (2015). She has participated in many group exhibitions, including Systematically Personae at the FotoFocue Biennal, Nation Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio ( 2016) and Art/Afrique, LouisVuitton Foundation, Paris (2017). Photographs from Muholi's Faces and Phases series were included in the Sao Paulo Biennial (2010), Documenta (2012) and the South African Pavillion at the Venice Biennale (2013).

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