Zanele Muholi: The Celebration of Black LGBTQIA+ Identity

Installation view of the exhibition Zanele Muholi, National Gallery of Iceland, 2022. Courtesy the museum and the artist.

October 15, 2022 – February 12, 2023
National Gallery of Iceland
Laufásvegur 12, 101 Reykjavik

By Irene Bernardi

After the last large exhibition at Tate Modern in London, Zanele Muholi presents their works at the National Gallery of Iceland in Reykjavik in collaboration with the English museum. Born in Umlazi in Durban, South Africa, Muholi is a visual activist whose focus of their works is to tell the stories of Black [1]LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) lives in South Africa and beyond. All the photos are as unique and special as their connection with the community. Curated by Harpa Þórsdóttir, Vigdís Rún Jónsdóttir, and Yasufumi Nakamori, the exposition counts more than 100 photographs together with video, poster, and documentation about the work of Muholi and the history of apartheid in South Africa.

On the first floor, three ongoing projects are hosted in the principal room. Somnyama Ngonyama (2012-) is a series of self-portraits where Muholi explores the politics of race and its representation. The portraits are photographed in different locations around the world with a focus on talking about the racist gaze; in every shoot, the artist uses objects, materials, and clothes to demonstrate the violence and harmful representation of Black people. The titles of the work “Somnyama Ngonyama” remain in Zulu, Muholi’s first language which means “Hello, Black Lioness”: the title is meant to reclaim their language and identity which is the mirror of Muholi’s activism.

In Nowalzi II, Nuoro, Italy (2015) Muholi narrates the “pencil test”: this was a dehumanizing practice devised to assist the South African government in racial classification under apartheid. When authorities were unsure if a person should be classified as white, a pencil would be pushed into the hair. The person “passed” and was “classified” as white if the pencil didn’t stick in the hair and if it was straight rather than curly, kinky, or coily. Muholi’s gaze is looking at the visitors as if to say “I am here. I can’t be in another place. I am Black, I am who I am, and you must have respect for me.”

Zanele Muholi. Nowalzi II, Nuoro, Italy, 2015. Gelatin silver print on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

In the artist’s shoots, the gaze, the eye, and the power are an important “red thread.” In Faces and Phases (2006 -) Muholi captures more than 500 pictures to celebrate, commemorate and archive the lives of Black lesbians, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Many of these photos are the result of a long and sustained relationship and collaboration, where the main intention is to create an archive of faces and the phases of the changing in their life: memories, stories, aging, education, work experience, and marriage. During the installation, the museum and the artist decided to leave a few white spaces on the wall to remember the people that took part in the project and passed away.

Faces and phases (2006-) Installation view of the exhibition Zanele Muholi, National Gallery of Iceland, 2022. Courtesy of the museum and the artist.

When we are standing in front of these two big artworks, around us there is no silence because we can “feel” an imperceptible sound, caused by the looks of Muholi and the people they have met that speak to us. They have been watching for too long in silence and suffering from the violence and discrimination due to their existence, for being who they are. The black and white of the photos vibrate, like their eyes that communicate their will to speak.

Muholi was born in 1972 during the height of apartheid in South Africa. On the second floor, a room is focused on the particular contexts from which artists’ work emerges and remains deeply rooted: books, fanzines, videos, photos, and posters describe and tell the history of the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa. A timeline helps the visitors to understand and highlight the new era of democracy after apartheid that ended in 1994. We can also see some pictures from Only Half the Picture (2002–2006) that document survivors of hate crimes living across South Africa and its Townships. Under apartheid, Townships were established as residential areas for those who had been evicted from places designated as ‘white only.’ Muholi captures the people who experienced this pain and hatred with images of intimacy, expanding the narrative beyond victimhood.

Zanele Muholi. Aftermath 2004. Courtesy of the artist.

The last room houses the projects Brave Beauties (2014 -) and some images from Queering Public Space. These photos are related to each other since both present a series of portraits of trans women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people, many of whom are beauty pageant contestants. Muholi is inspired by fashion magazine covers; all the clothes, poses, and accessories are decided together, with the subjects portrayed. Many of the images are taken on the beach in Durban: the artist has continuously photographed Brave Beauties participants on the beach, in particular the beauty queen Melissa Mbambo. Melissa is a trans woman who won the title of Miss Gay South Africa in 2017. During apartheid, she was racially segregated, and photographing her on the beach is a way of reclaiming this space.

Brave Beauties (2014-) Installation view of the exhibition Zanele Muholi, National Gallery of
    Iceland, 2022. Courtesy the museum and the artist.       

This exhibition does not present ‘mere’ pictures or portraits of people. This exhibition is a giant manifesto of existence, of the freedom to be alive and to have a happy and long life. This concept is very clear in Muholi’s mind: “Every person in the pictures has a story to tell, but many of us come from spaces where most Black people never had that opportunity. If they did, their voices were told by other people. No one can tell our story better than ourselves”[2].

Zanele Muholi studied at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, and the Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly known as Ryerson University, Toronto), co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, and founder of Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual media. They are also an honorary professor at the University of the Arts Bremen, in Germany.

The MUDEC – Museum of Cultures in Milan, will host the next Muholi exhibition “A Visual Activist. Muholi” from March 31 to July 30, 2023.

[1] Sarah Allen, Yasufumi Nakamori, Zanele Muholi exhibition book, Tate Modern, 2021

[2] Zanele Muholi, ZANELE MUHOLI, Tate Modern 2021, London (UK),

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