Zanele Muholi A Visual Artist and Activist

The cover of Faces and Phases by Zanele MuholiReview by Birthe Havmoeller

Art Book: 'Faces and Phases'
South African artist and lesbian activist Zanele Muholi writes in her latest book Face and Phase: ‘In the face of all the challenges encountered by black lesbians daily, I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is a black queer visibility. It is important to mark, map and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories for reference and posterity so that future generations will note that we were here. (…)
‘Faces’ express the person, and ‘Phases’ signify the transition from one stages of sexuality or gender eapression and experience to another. Faces is also about the face-to-face confrontation between myself as the photographer/activist and the many lesbians, women and transmen I have interacted with from different places.’ (Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases, Prestel, 2010)

Sincere Portraits Of Women, Who Love Women
Zanele’s b/w artworks make us – and perhaps even more people in South Africa – think about our/their society in a new way. When looking at Zanele’s works, people are faced with the fact that love matters(!) homosexuality matters, and that it is (also) an African thing, not only ‘something for the Whites’. In the book we are told the names of Zanele’s sitters, but not their stories and to me that is what makes this body of work art and not ‘just’ documentary photography. These brave women are confident out lesbians, however their faces show subtle traits of hardship and sorrow. My general impression is that they are not at peace with the world and many of them seem to be standing with their ‘back up against the wall’.

Faces and Phases by Zanele Muholi

Art book: Faces and Phases by Zanele Muholi, 2010. The portaits of Penny Xoliswa Nkosi and Siza Khumalo. Both photos taken in Berea, Johannesburg, 2007

At a time when the LGBT curators prefer display queer artworks with images of queer couples rather than portraits of queer individuals, Zanele focuses on the individual lesbian women, as she is not making her art to please anyone. This book is a strong visual statement.

Short Film: 'Difficult Love'
At the recent The Out In Africa Film Festival the film ‘Difficult Love’, a documentary about Zanele Muholi and her art, was screened. In her film Zanele declares: ‘I call myself a visual activist, because what I do is radical and based on political issues. I want people to know more about our lives as black lesbians we come from families we work we think, we care, there is so much going on in our lives… we exist as human beings, women, who love other women, so this is me presenting myself out there in the world for people to know more about who I am.’
In ‘Difficult Love’ Zanele talks about her works, and we see her at work making her portraits of lesbians for the book Faces and Phases. She explains that she is making images that speak to her, images that show her community and document her community: the black lesbians in the townships of South Africa. She is (as always) questioning the omnipresent heterosexual mind set. Heterosexuality is not the one and only sexuality, just one of many aspect of sexuality. In her artwork she presents alternative aspects of female beauty to the South African and the international audience. She says: “Beauty doesn’t mean that you have to smile, show your teeth or… just BE!” And she creates a space in front of her camera, where her lesbian friends can be, and be photographed just as they are.

‘Difficult love’ (commissioned by the SABC and co-directed by Peter Goldsmid and Zanele Muholi) is a fine documentary. It is an unapologetic film, which takes you into Zaneles world. We learn about her background, her passion, we see her at work and at home with her girlfriend, and we get to hear what South African gender theorists and art critiques think about her controversial art works. Thanks! Zanele, for sending me the DVD and a copy of your book. I hope a lot of people get the chance to see your film and your artworks.

Where To See Zanele's Artworks
Zanele Muholi is an international artists. ‘Faces and Phases’ is included on the 29th São Paulo Biennale, which runs through December 12, 2010. Her work can also be seen on the group exhibition ‘PEEKABOO – Current South Africa’ at the Tennis Palace Art Museum, Helsinki through, January 16, 2011.

Related Details And Links
Faces and Phases
by Zanele Muholi
Publisher: Prestel USA (August 31, 2010)
ISBN-10: 3791344951
ISBN-13: 978-3791344959

Zanele Muholi’s website

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