A woman clasping her hands on her jockey shorts, protecting her privacy following rape. The long scar that runs down his leg is evidence of an even older assault. In another image, hospital bracelets attach their wearer to the hate crime that got them here – rape, assault, GBH. These jolts, from Zanele Muholi’s 2002-06 series, Only Half the Picture, are lifted by other types of intimate images in the opening room of Tate Modern’s investigation into the work of the artist. A lazy face stares back, with a half-open mouth puffing smoke into the air. In another, the artist looks down, photographing the cup of coffee on the floor, resting between slipper feet. The light clings to the coarse hairs on their legs. This one’s called Not Butch, but my legs are. Moments of humor and lightness are much needed here.
Raised in Durban during the apartheid era, Muholi has spent the past two decades documenting and celebrating the lives of black gay men in post-apartheid South Africa. As much as their work is an affirmation, and sometimes a commemoration, it is also a lesson in visibility and also a provocation. A black woman, her head cut off from the image, adjusts a belt wrapped around her bare thigh: the belt supports a white strap-on dildo, hanging heavily from her harness. Fuck you, the dildo seems to say. Black skin, white silicone, with its own balls. This lesbian empowerment image (although a woman might as well use it on a man) celebrates sex and desire in the bluntest terms. It is definitely a thing, unavoidable. It was one thing, too, when it was shown in the early 2000s. Muholi received threats, he was told to go read the Bible. Some of those hasty responses are put together in a display case and documented in a short film that also tells us how some of Muholi’s comrades thought the artist had gone too far. Sometimes too far is the only place to go. Show and tell.
Bodies caught in mirrors, three spooned bodies, all legs and feet, close-ups of bulges and skin and nipples and hair. The camera hovers, calibrating the tender proximities and envelopes, our eyes a few centimeters away. Soon, we move from the situations to the portrait, pillar of the practice of Muholi. Filled with complicity and confrontation, the artist’s portraits of trans women and men, in-between and subjects whose gender performances leave us in a pleasant state of uncertainty (and why, could we? ask ourselves, could we be so desperate to gender fix someone?), the artist and his collaborators tease our anxieties, give them back to us, face us. As much as we look at them, they look at us as much.
While the stories of the artist’s subjects testify to their resilience and frequent bravery in the face of homophobia and prejudice, dignity, body language, the embodied self they present to the camera, their personal styles, their playfulness, their self-control and their sensuality. The artist benefits from awkwardness and awkwardness as much as height and high style camp, and genre play complicity. Muholi celebrates creative self-invention and how their subjects exteriorize their subjectivity and demonstrate an agency that was first denied under apartheid, then perpetuated and reproduced by the mores and social conventions of the new South Africa. .
In the ongoing long series of portraits Faces and Phases, Muholi portrays dozens of subjects at different times in their lives, aging, in transition, developing their own styles, remaking and becoming themselves. These image banks are a constant stream of double take and surprise. As much as they record their individual subjects, these portraits (the artist has done more than 500 to date), all posed in the same way, frontal and conventional in their form are also a recording of the passing of time. This makes their register of individual change – as well as the changes that life brings to all of us – even more apparent. Their reserve of images (almost all subjects are smileless, even severe) gives them a lot of weight and seriousness. The looks they give us are often more inquisitive and seem more lively than the ones we could give them.
In another long ongoing series, Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the Dark Lioness” in Zulu), Muholi turns the camera on himself, or rather, gives us several selves in different forms. South African miner with helmet and headlamp, domestic with scouring pads or clothespins in hair, or scalloped with puffy rubber gloves, or peering through foliage like a colonial-era savage nobleman, dressed as a tribal woman or carrying a stool with three legs on their head, these portraits are sometimes absurd pamphlets, frightening appearances, self-parodies and invariably as haunting and serious as they are humorous. Some of them were presented at the Venice Biennale 2019, where extremely enlarged engravings dominated the walls of the Arsenale. Their large scale suited them and the images became more sculptural than graphic. There, they stopped me in my tracks. Muholi is best in black and white. The eyes roll back, sometimes with a look of accusation. What they have most is presence. They root you with their candid looks.