This post was originally posted on my other blog, The Writing Hufflepuff, but I’ve decided to transfer my art-related posts to this blog. The exhibition this post talks about took place in 2017
Zanele Muholi’s exhibition is the most powerful exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum I have seen, and I’m so happy that it was a really big exhibition. There were several rooms dedicated to her work, and there were so many! Her work is incredibly moving, powerful and important, so to see the museum dedicate so much room to her work was wonderful.
But who is Zanele Muholi? Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist. Her mision is ‘to rewrite a black and queer trans visual history of South-Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond.’ Guys, I’m ashamed to say that I had no idea what was going on in South Africa. Of course I know that there are still a lot of countries where people from the LGBTQIA+ community are treated horribly, but I’ve never heard anything about South Africa specifically, whether it’s on the news or on the internet, which means I never really thought about it. Which is horrible. We need to talk about this and spread awareness. Which is exactly what Muholi wants to do with her work.
Muholi only photographs black people from the community, and in the case of her most recent series ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ (Hail the Black Lioness), she photographs herself, capturing the multiple roles that she assumes as a black lesbian. By using a high-contrast of black and white tonal values, she exaggerates her skin tone to emphasise her ‘blackness’.
I absolutely love every piece of work I’ve seen of hers so far, but one of my favourites is definitely ‘Bester’. There are four portraits with ‘Bester’ in the title, which pay homage to her mother, Bester Muholi, who worked as a maid in a white household for 42 years. In the portraits Muholi uses everyday objects that refer to domestic chores, such as scourers and clothespins, as accessories and in hairstyles. By doing so, she creates personas that celebrate hardworking and underpaid women.
I also adore her series Brave Beauties. The majority of those who are portrayed are participants of Miss Gay beauty pageants in South Africa. The photos don’t only celebrate the body and individuality, but also the women and men brave enough to publicly take part in queer beauty pageants, thereby helping raise awareness for the LGBTQIAP+ community, despite endangering themselves in the process. The photographs are beautiful and inspiring. They’re such a joy to see.
Apart from her photos (and there are many more!), the museum also showed two documentaries. One is made by Muholi herself, the other by Human Right Watch in which Muholi talks about the violence and discrimination the South African LGBTQIA+ community faces and how she strives to give this community a face.
Muholi has documentated weddings and funerals in the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa. The other documentary shows the wedding of Ayanda and Nhlanhla, a transgender man. With these documentaries Muholi wants to highlight the contradictions that while same-sex marriage is legal, lots of people are still raped and murdered because of their sexuality.
I don’t know if these documentaries are always part of her exhibitions, but if you have the chance to watch them I’d definitely recommend them, though do keep in mind that they can be triggering.
While the entire exhibition was incredibly powerful and moving, the end is just… I have no words. At the end of the exhibition, there was an archive on the wall in which Muholi documented hate crimes faced by the LGBTQIAP+ community between 2006 and now. It takes up pretty much the entire wall (though it’s on there in both Dutch and English, so it looks a bit bigger, but it’s still way too big). It’s heartbreaking and chilling to read and if I had been alone I definitely would’ve cried. It’s horrifying, but so so so important to know what’s happening in other countries. Zanele Muholi is an inspiration for keeping track of all the horrible things that happen in her country and not letting it get her down, for giving her community a face and fighting for her and the rest of her community in South Africa’s rights.
I’d definitely recommend to read up on and take a look at her work and go to an exhibition if you have the chance.
Oof that was hard to write. I have so many feelings for this woman, her work and this exhibition, that I didn’t know how to put it into words (thus why I’ve put off writing it so long). There’s so much more I want to say, but I just don’t know how. Have you seen her work in person? Any other important artists like her that I should know about? Let me know in the comments!