Somnyama Ngonyama! Hail, the Dark Lioness! This directive, the title of Zanele Muholi’s most recent portrait series, is fitting for the 45-year- old visual activist whose unwavering dedication to documenting queer black lives in South African townships has produced a powerful visual history of a marginalised community. For Muholi, countering the invisibility and erasure of black LGBTQI individuals in the national psyche and liberation narrative is her life’s work, underscored by American author and activist bell hooks’ instruction: ‘I must be willing to tell what I’ve seen. I must bear witness. I must transgress.’
At 19, Muholi left her home township, Umlazi, on Kwa- Zulu-Natal’s east coast, to explore her identity as a queer black woman in early ’90s Johannesburg. Here, she became involved in activism and social documentary photography through Behind the Mask, a non-profit online library that focused on archiving media about the LGBTQI community in South Africa and on the continent. This included the violence (in the form of abuse, self-harm and ‘corrective’ rape) inflicted on LGBTQI bodies in townships, where, despite South Africa’s liberal constitution, being gay is still largely taboo.
Muholi received her artistic training at the Market Photo Workshop, a small school of photography in Johannesburg founded in the late 1980s by renowned photographer David Goldblatt, who became her mentor. ‘The act of taking a photograph and preserving a life moment has always fascinated me, especially since within my Zulu culture this was the role of men,’ writes Muholi in her 2009 thesis, Mapping Our Histories: A Visual History of Black Lesbians in Post-Apartheid South Africa, where she describes the beginning of her artistic practice. ‘I first began to document and take pictures informally at events and parties that had to do with my own personal life as a way of asserting my right to record my life.’
Muholi’s self-proclaimed mission ‘to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa’, began in the mid-2000s as a response to a subsection of photography, cinema and literature that was (at the time) predominantly focused on white, and often male, bodies. Her 11-year project and life’s work, Faces and Phases, makes visible the lives of black lesbians, trans men and transwomen and the community they represent, the members of which are regularly victims of hate-crimes, abuse and discrimination. As Muholi asserts, this community has ‘yet to find substantial meaning’ in the celebration of national freedom and democracy. Her imperative to record black LGBTQI lives has had an impact: through consistent, undaunted documentation, Muholi has introduced once invisible stories to South Africa’s narrative of nation.
Muholi predominantly uses black and white as her medium. ‘I liked the texture and classical feel it creates in photos,’ she says. There is another reason too: in an interview with the New Yorker, Muholi explains that black and white creates ‘a sense of timelessness – a sense that we’ve been here before, but we’re looking at human beings who have never before had an opportunity to be seen’.
As a community insider, she is able to highlight the relationships between the participants (Muholi does not see her sitters as ‘subjects’, which can too easily be read as ‘objects’) and herself, relationships that are strengthened as she revisits people and places year on year. As a result, her work exhibits a unique familiarity with the participants. In addition to producing photographic ‘evidence’ of the existence of black LGBTQI individuals in South Africa, Muholi’s work also reproduces important features of this community that do not revolve around violence or fear: love, friendship and solidarity.
In 2015, she turned the camera on herself, a move that put her own face and (life) phases on display. ‘I’m confronting the politics of race and representation in South Africa and beyond the South African borders in the most natural way I can – by presenting my own black body,’ she told Dazed. There are 365 portraits in the series, one for every day of the year, where Muholi experiments with different characters and archetypes; a Cindy Sherman redux that simultaneously questions the privilege of skin tone and begs the question: why are Sherman’s portraits not equated with the ‘exotic’? Why do Muholi’s portraits recall colonial ethnographic photographs, while Sherman’s do not?
Muholi’s gaze, blazing beneath a mane of black shearling in the portrait that shares a title with the series, is unflinching. The same stare is repeated again and again, from under wire scourers, clothes pegs, hardhat, bank notes, blanket, sheet; between leaves and through weaves. The use of a silver gelatin print process and the darkening of the black tones in the photographs produce arresting images where ‘black’ is not only a pigment, but also a metaphor. ‘What is it like to be black today?’ Muholi asks, rhetorically. The portraits give an answer: ‘This is how it is’, at the same time questioning the viewer’s fascination with Muholi’s blacker-than-black skin; her ‘exotic’ getups. She uses her black body and a double gaze (at herself as photographer, and at the viewer) to redress the ‘othering’ effect of similar colonial-era portraits of black women, at the same time producing a fearless autobiographical narrative to add to her growing archive.
The colour black represents both the absence of light and the total absorption of light. Metaphorically, both are present in Muholi’s work. To wit: the darkness of invisibility and brutal violence inflicted on LGBTQI bodies; the faces from Faces and Phases that are not repeated because these individuals have been maimed or murdered for expressing their sexuality. And the light? The unwavering assertion of portraits that proclaim: ‘I am here, illuminated.’
Images courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.