Tate Modern, London
April 29 – October 18, 2020
Tate Modern will present the first major UK survey of South African visual activist Zanele Muholi. Muholi (b.1972) came to prominence in the early 2000s with photographs that told the stories of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex lives in South Africa. 260 photographs will be brought together to present the full breadth of Muholi’s career to date, from their very first body of work Only Half the Picture, to their on-going series Somnyama Ngonyama. These works challenge dominant ideologies and representations, presenting the participants in their photographs as fellow human beings bravely existing in the face of prejudice, intolerance and often violence.
During the 1990s, South Africa underwent major social and political changes. While the country’s 1996 post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, the LGBTQIA+ community remains a target for violence and prejudice to this day. In the early series Only Half the Picture Muholi aimed at depicting the complexities of gender and sexuality for the individuals of the queer community. The collection includes moments of love and intimacy as well intense images alluding to traumatic events in the lives of the participants. Muholi also began an ongoing visual archive of portraits, Faces and Phases, which commemorates and celebrates black lesbians, transgender people and gender non-conforming individuals. Each participant looks directly at the camera, challenging the viewer to hold their gaze, while individual testimonies capture their stories. The images and testimonies form a living and growing archive of this community in South Africa and beyond.
The exhibition will include several other key series of works, including Brave Beauties, which celebrates empowered non-binary people and trans women, many of whom have won Miss Gay Beauty pageants, and Being, a series of tender images of couples which challenge stereotypes and taboos. Images like Melissa Mbambo, Durban also attempt to reclaim public spaces for black and queer communities, such as a beach in Durban which was racially segregated during apartheid. Within these series, Muholi tells collective as well as individual stories. They challenge preconceived notions of deviance and victimhood, encourage viewers to address their own misconceptions, and create a shared sense of understanding and solidarity.
More recently, Muholi has begun an acclaimed series of dramatic self-portraits entitled Somnyama Ngonyama (‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ in Zulu). Turning the camera on themself, the artist adopts different poses, characters and archetypes to address issues of race and representation. From scouring pads and latex gloves to rubber tires and cable ties, everyday materials are transformed into politically loaded props and costumes. The resulting images explore themes of labour, racism, Eurocentrism and sexual politics, often commenting on events in South Africa’s history and Muholi’s experiences as a South African black queer person traveling abroad. By enhancing the contrast in the photographs, Muholi also emphasises the darkness of their skin tone, reclaiming their blackness with pride and re-asserting its beauty.
Zanele Muholi is co-curated by Yasufumi Nakamori, Senior Curator and Sarah Allen, Assistant Curator with Kerryn Greenberg, Head of International Collection Exhibitions, Tate and formerly Curator, Tate Modern. The exhibition is organised by Tate Modern in collaboration with the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, Gropius Bau in Berlin and Bildmuseet at Umeå University. It will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.
Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban and lives in Johannesburg. They studied at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, and Ryerson University, Toronto. Co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, and founder of Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual media, Muholi is also an honorary professor at the University of the Arts Bremen, Germany. Solo exhibitions of Muholi’s work have been hosted around the world, including at the Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg (2012); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015); Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (2017); Autograph ABP, London (2017-) and Museo de Arte moderno de Buenos Aires (2018). Muholi has won numerous awards, including the Lucie Humanitarian Award (2019), the 2019 ‘Best Photography Book Award’ by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation for their book Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail, The Dark Lioness (Aperture), the Rees Visionary Award by Amref Health Africa (2019); a fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society, UK (2018); France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2017); the Mbokodo Award in the category of Visual Arts (2017);the ICP Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism (2016); the Fine Prize for an emerging artist at the Carnegie International (2013); a Prince Claus Award (2013); and both the Casa África award for best female photographer and a Fondation Blachère award at Les Rencontres de Bamako biennial of African photography (2009). Somnyama Ngonyama was shown at the 58th Venice Biennale (2019); Faces and Phases was shown at dOCUMENTA 13 (2012) and the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) and was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize (2015).
Muholi’s pronouns are they, them, their.