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In the early 2000s, Zanele Muholi came to prominence with photographs telling the stories of Black lesbian, trans, bisexual, gay, queer and intersex lives in South Africa. 

A significant collection of photographs (over 370) has been brought together to present the breadth of Zanele Muholi’s career. The collection includes images from their first body of work to their latest and ongoing series. 

These photographs challenge dominant ideologies, presenting the participants as empowered individuals superbly surviving in the face of intolerance, prejudice, and violence.

This exhibition is the first major UK survey of the artist’s work and originally opened at Tate Modern in 2020. It was cut short by the national COVID pandemic lockdown. 

UK visitors can now see a revised and expanded version of the exhibition following a highly successful European tour.

South Africa underwent significant political and social change during the 90s. In 1996, South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution was the first in the world outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Despite that, the LGBTQIA+ community remains a target for violence and prejudice to this day. 

Zanele Muholi, Qiniso, The Sails, Durban 2019 Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 399 x 260 mm Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

In Muholi’s early series Only Half the Picture, they depict the complexities of gender and sexuality for the queer community, including moments of love and intimacy plus intense images alluding to traumatic events in the lives of the participants. 

Muholi began an ongoing visual archive of portraits in Faces and Phases, which celebrates and commemorates Black lesbians, transgender and gender non-conforming people. The series challenges viewers to confront the participants’ gaze, creating a growing archive of South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ – a community that faces oppression and discrimination. 

The exhibition includes several other series of works, including Brave Beauties, which is a celebration empowering non-binary people and trans women. 

Being is a series of tender images of couples which challenge white supremacist and heteronormative stereotypes and taboos. 

A magnificent act of solidarity

The Observer

Muholi tells collective and individual stories within these series. They challenge preconceived notions of deviance and victimhood, while encouraging viewers to address their misconceptions, creating a shared sense of understanding and solidarity.

New works are presented in the UK for the first time from Muholi’s acclaimed series of dramatic self-portraits entitled Somnyama Ngonyama meaning ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ in Zulu. 

As they turn the camera on themself, the artist adopts different poses and characters to address issues of representation and race. From latex gloves to scouring pads, from rubber tyres to cable ties, everyday materials are transformed into politically loaded props. 

The resulting images explore themes of racism, labour, sexual politics, and Eurocentrism. The often comment on events in South Africa’s history and Muholi’s experiences as a Black queer person travelling abroad. 

Muholi emphasises the darkness of their skin tone by enhancing the contrast in the photographs, proudly owning their Blackness and asserting its beauty. 

Zanele Muholi, Mmotshola Metsi (The Water Bearer), The Brave II 2023, Bronze 1450 x 1350 x 700 mm. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Carole Kvasnevski © Zanele Muholi

Since 2020, Zanele Muholi has expanded their portraiture approach into sculpture.

Four monumental sculptures in the exhibition explore intimacy as they reckon with the relationship between public and private spheres. These larger-than-life-size works include three bronze depictions of the artist and a bronze representation of female sexual anatomy.

The final space focuses on collectivity, including images of protests, pride marches, and life-changing events. This final section also highlights the Muholi Art Institute, Cape Town, established in 2021. The self-funded initiative offers residencies, studios and exhibition spaces for up-and-coming creatives from underserved backgrounds in South Africa. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a soundscape specially created by South African singer and award-winning musician Toya Delazy. Delazy has created unique responses to each section of the show to form a sonic tour for visitors to take through the exhibition.

Zanele Muholi is at Tete Modern, 6 June 2024 – 26 January 2025.

Sing at Little Ku

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