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“The overhelming narrative of black lesbians in the media in South Africa is one of victimhood. This dichotomy between visibility and invisibility is at the core of Muholi's work.”

Previous Page: Zanele Muholi (b.1972), Bester I, Mayotte 2015. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper. 700 x 505 mm. Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/ Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York. © Zanele Muholi. Left: Zanele Muholi (b.1972), Ntozakhe II , Parktown 2016. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper. 1000 x 720 mm Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York. © Zanele Muholi.

Within these works, the participants tell their side of the story, sharing their experiences and powerful testimonies of navigating gender, sexuality and race in South Africa today.

A: Muholi started the series in the same year that South Africa – the only country on the continent – legalised same-sex marriage. Of course, discrimination and violence are still rife in South Africa, and across the entire world, in spite of this legislation. How do these images remedy a history of black queer invisibility? SA: It is without doubt that black queer individuals in South Africa suffer from under-representation and a certain level invisibility. But equally, writer Pumla Dineo Gqola makes the important point that they also suffer from a state of “hypervisibility” – one which can make them the target of homophobic hate-crime. The overwhelming narrative of black lesbians in the media in South Africa then becomes one of victimhood. This dichotomy between visibility and invisibility is at the core of Muholi’s work. They document survivors of hate-crimes but also try to create a form of counter-representation against the predominant narrative by creating a positive visual document that will live on beyond them.

A: Why did Muholi move onto self-portraiture? What new creative and professional avenues did this genre lend? SA: Although many people know Muholi’s work from the powerful Somnyama Ngonayama series, Muholi actually took self-portraits from a very early point in their career – and we will show many of these important works at Tate. One of the reasons they made a more decisive turn towards this medium is the need for self-healing. Muholi spent many years documenting the hardships of their community in South Africa – which have included many deaths, murders and corrective rapes. Somnyama Ngonyama offered an opportunity to heal some of these personal wounds whilst also addressing broader issues related to race and representation.

A: The Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) series includes self-portraits, presenting alter egos that boldly hold the viewer’s gaze. How does this body of work, and the Brave Beauties series come together to challenge Eurocentric definitions of beauty? SA: Beauty is a powerful word to describe Muholi’s body of work. But it isn’t a beauty born by artificial means – in Muholi’s portraits of others they don’t employ elaborate lighting, makeup or staging techniques. Rather, each participant projects their own beauty on their own terms. In relation to challenging Eurocentric definitions of beauty I think one could read the darkening of skin tone in Somnyama Ngonyama as an act of reclaiming blackness – of challenging a dominant conception of lighter skin as a canon of beauty.

A: The artist’s head is often crowned with everyday objects, such as pegs, sponges and hair picks. What do these objects signify? How do they operate, both thematically and structurally in each piece? SA: Muholi uses material often sourced from their immediate environment. The various materials speak to particular issues or histories. For example, in Nolwazi II, Nuoro, Italy, 2015, they are crowned in felt-tip pens. This references the “pencil test” devised to assist authorities in racial classification under apartheid. When authorities were unsure how a

Aesthetica 27

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