San Francisco Chronicle

An invitation to see from the inside

Muholi captures Black queer community with unforgetta­ble empathy


Before the analytical brain kicks in, the beauty and emotionali­ty of Zanele Muholi’s portraits strike the viewer. The South African artist, who uses they/them pronouns, presents their subjects with both a tenderness and, at times, austerity that reveal some essential part of their humanity.

But while the works are enormously artful, there’s very little artifice, even when props and styling are employed.

A self-described “visual activist,” Muholi has long worked in photograph­y. During the pandemic, they expanded into painting and sculpture. In “Zanele Muholi: Eye Me,” on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 11, we get the best of all media — but it’s the photo works that linger.

In Muholi’s first major West Coast exhibition, the transgende­r subjects in the series “Brave Beauties” (begun in 2014 and still ongoing) are shown with both a softness and a strength that invites your gaze as they assume the poses and iconograph­y of fashion magazines. The queer couples shown in “Being” (2006-ongoing) are presented in everyday situations, demystifyi­ng anything “other” or exotic about their relationsh­ips for outsiders, but also demonstrat­ing moments of startling emotional intimacy.

The portraits of “Faces and Phases” (2006-ongoing), in which the LGBTQ subjects chose their own clothing, poses and settings, allow you to see both their resilience and vulnerabil­ity. As you stay with the works, one begins to realize the power Muholi’s ability to capture their subjects’ essence has to bring the community’s stories to the forefront. The camera, and Muholi’s vision, are a great clarifier.

“The work that you’re seeing here has a lot to do with the politics of representa­tion,” Muholi told me during a recent visit to the museum. “When I speak of visual activism, I’m speaking of agency as the means of using visuals for activism and also to take action. If there’s any violations of human rights, it means that the camera is used as a tool that could change the context. We’re speaking here as an insider, not from outside, to say that I feel the pain of the members of my community. I understand what it’s like to be

excluded, not to be heard or even seen.”

The empathy Muholi demonstrat­es as a queer (they identify as nonbinary), Black South African depicting other queer, Black South Africans is what makes the work so effective and unforgetta­ble.

Muholi, 51, describes their early visual activism in the 1990s and early 2000s as a “trial approach,” filled with risk because of how common hate crimes were against LGBTQ people in parts of South Africa. While texts and public events documentin­g the country’s queer citizens were becoming more common in those decades, Muholi noticed a lack of visual representa­tion, which became an impetus for their work.

SFMOMA has long followed and exhibited Muholi’s work; in 2011’s group show “Face of Our Time,” the artist had an entire gallery. Their work has also been on view in San Francisco recently at the Jonathan Carver Moore gallery.

“Muholi has had an incredible couple of years,” noted Erin O’Toole, who co-curated the exhibition with Shana Lopes. “Since we first exhibited them, they’ve become this internatio­nal star.”

O’Toole said it felt important to do an exhibition that showed “the whole arc of their career” that would include earlier work like “Being,” “Brave Beauties” and their first series, “Only Half the Picture” (2002-06), which shows survivors of sexual assault and hate crimes.

“It’s not work that has been seen widely,” said O’Toole. “It contextual­izes the other work in a really complex, moving way. We can see how they evolved.”

Seeing this evolution is extremely powerful, both in observing how Muholi’s practice has expanded to include film (the 2010 documentar­y “Difficult Love,” co-directed with Peter Goldsmid, is on view, as are video interviews with “Faces and Phases” subjects), but also in how they’ve turned their gaze on themself.

Their series “Somnyama Ngonyama” (Zulu for “Hail the Dark Lioness”) sees Muholi transform into different personas and archetypes referencin­g South African history and contempora­ry culture, often giving the works Zulu names. Using everyday items like masking tape, hair picks, cameras and wooden clothespin­s as costume elements, the images become fantastica­l, witty, at times ironic. Muholi increased the contrast in the photos, making their skin appear several shades darker than it does in real life.

A number of associatio­ns came to me as I viewed the photos, sculptures and paintings in this series — ranging from Dadaism in their use of objects to traditiona­l African tribal aesthetics — but the gorgeousne­ss of the images is also overwhelmi­ng. I’m still grappling with how Muholi uses themself to communicat­e their message of reclamatio­n in these works, and I probably will continue to do so.

The most pressing question I left with: How do I express how urgent it is for audiences to see this show?

See it as soon as you can. It’s not just that the work deserves to be seen, the subjects deserve to be seen too — and that includes Muholi.

 ?? Yancey Richardson ?? Zanele Muholi’s “Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesbu­rg” is from the series “Being.”
Yancey Richardson Zanele Muholi’s “Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesbu­rg” is from the series “Being.”
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 ?? Collection of Pamela and David Hornik ?? Zanele Muholi’s “Thathu I, The Sails, Durban” is from 2019. Muholi is a self-described “visual activist.”
Collection of Pamela and David Hornik Zanele Muholi’s “Thathu I, The Sails, Durban” is from 2019. Muholi is a self-described “visual activist.”

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