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Intimate Portraiture

Zanele Muholi


Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) images have captivated the world. Creating direct, powerful portraits, the South African artist and visual activist works across photography, video and installation, focusing on race, gender and sexuality. Muholi uses the lens as a space for reclamation – of both gaze and representation. The artist has won a number of prestigious prizes, accolades and honours, including an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in 2016, a Chevalier de Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2016 and an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2018. This autumn, Tate Modern, London, presents the artist's first major UK survey. Sarah Allen, co-curator of Zanele Muholi 2020, expands on the themes in the show as part of Tate's wider programming, as well as the impact of this groundbreaking work over the last few decades.

A: How did Zanele Muholi’s artistic career begin? SA: Muholi’s entrance to the art world was through activism. Amongst early activist work they wrote for the queer blog Behind the Mask, and in 2002 they co-founded Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) in Gauteng – a nonprofit organisation that promotes and protects the rights of lesbian, bisexual and transsexual women and provides a safe space for these people to meet and organise. In 2003, they graduated from Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. Shortly after in 2004, Muholi’s first solo exhibition – Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture – was presented at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. This, along with their inclusion in the group show Is Everybody Comfortable? at Museum Africa,

Johannesburg, and as part of a conference at the University of Western Cape entitled Gender & Visuality, garnered national media attention. It was very clear that Muholi had an unflinching and unique approach to an important subject matter and their career progressed quite quickly from then. A: Muholi devoted years to the Faces and Phases series (started in 2006), which directed the camera at members of the black lesbian and trans community in South Africa. Can you discuss how this series began, and how it developed over the years that followed? SA: The first image that Muholi shot for Faces and Phases was of Busi Sigasa – a talented activist and poet who has written a beautiful poem called Remember Me When I'm Gone, which will feature in the Tate show this autumn. The importance of creating an archive to commemorate and celebrate the lives of black queer individuals in South Africa really built from that first portrait. The series now includes several hundred portraits of lesbian, transmen and gender non-conforming individuals. This is an ongoing project for Muholi, who returns to re-photograph participants again over time. It is a lifelong series and a living archive. I find that level of artistic dedication incredibly moving. A really critical element of the project is giving voice to the individuals so that they can speak for themselves rather than be spoken for. The publication Faces and Phases includes many testimonies from the participants which reveal the diversity of the black queer community. Currently, I am reviewing video testimonies that will feature in the exhibition.

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