A person looks into the distance, surrounded by a veld of grass and weeds. Their sex is indefinable. The subject’s expression is also subject to interpretation. But one thing is clear: the individual is black.
Ambiguity, especially around the genre of the subject, is the hallmark of Zanele Muholi’s work, which is currently on display at the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin until March 13, 2022.
Since the early 2000s, Muholi has worked tirelessly to represent and portray LGBTQ identities in South Africa, highlighting how queer and trans people continue to struggle to lead authentic lives while facing heinous hate crimes in a very polarized society.
Muholi’s images are convincingly ambiguous
“Photography has given me this space to express myself in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had used any other medium,” Muholi said in an interview with Tate Modern in London during the year. last.
“What matters most is the content: who is in the photo and why are they there? Muholi pointed out, adding that posing in front of the camera also helped to cope with the artist’s personal story and pain.
“In my world, every human is beautiful. It’s kindness and what comes from within that is beautiful. It’s not the outer layer,” Muholi said when asked what role beauty plays. plays in the representation of black LGBTQ identities. “This is not about beauty per se, but the need to document the realities of people who deserve to be heard.”
Black aesthetics in the modern era
Born just outside Durban in 1972, Muholi has become, through visual art that relies on political activism, a leader in the conversation about gender identity and sexual orientation in South Africa. Most importantly, Muholi’s works express confidence, joy, and conviction in black queer and trans identities.
Muholi, who identifies as non-binary and uses them / them pronouns, has won several awards for his work, including an Index on Censorship award in 2013, the prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2016 and a Honorary Award Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society of the United Kingdom in 2018.
Muholi was barely 4 years old when the Soweto uprising occurred just outside Johannesburg. It is estimated that 176 schoolchildren were shot dead by the apartheid regime in South Africa for protesting against the application of the Afrikaans language in schools.
This image of schoolboy Hector Pieterson carried away by his brother has become the symbol of the Soweto uprising
These images of pain and death have traveled the world, galvanizing the global boycott movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
In contrast to the photos revealing to the world the black victims of South Africa’s racist policies, Muholi’s contemporary work is part of a movement of empowerment through the arts in the country.
But Muholi’s work has also been criticized by black South Africans, including former Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana, who has already left an exhibition showing Muholi’s photograph in Johannesburg, calling it “immoral. , offensive and contrary to nation-building. “
Muholi’s work highlights the vulnerability of gay and trans identities as much as it shows their pride
A wave of brutal hate crimes in 2021
Although South Africa in 2006 became the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage, this year has been marked by a wave of hate crimes and brutal killings against members of the LGBTQ community. Activists and non-governmental organizations, such as the Heinrich Böll Foundation, denounce the government’s inaction, calling on the state to enact the draft law on preventing and combating hate crime and speech, first drafted times in 2016.
Yet Muholi’s view of their country remains positive: “We are a beautiful country. We also have the most amazing and beautiful people.… We are still living and we hope that one day we will be successful.”
Muholi often invites his subjects to look straight into the camera lens to create a sense of communion with the viewer
Stephanie Rosenthal, Managing Director of the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin, shares this optimism, saying Muholi’s work shows “how healing, empathy and empowerment can be accomplished despite collective trauma, and how photography can be used. as an agent of reconstruction and activism at the same time. “
Muholi also emphasizes the importance of healing through their work. In an interview with Village Voice in 2012, they said everyone had “skeletons in their closet. I’m just a troubled human being and decided not to see a shrink, but rather to use photography “.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier