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Blackness and beauty through Muholi’s lens

By Lebogang Chauke

The expansiveness of blackness and queerness is captured by visual activist Zanele Muholi’s vast body of work.

Black bodies have been oppressed through colonialism and apartheid and placed in a position where their skin colour was permission enough to enslave and exploit them. In a country where all this injustice has happened, we are met with people still struggling to come to terms with who they are and how to be proud of themselves. How does one even begin to erase the negative connotations affiliated with identifying as black? How does one develop an identity when it has already been laid out for you by colonial and apartheid histories? Well, the answer may lie in Zanele Muholi’s photography.

Zanele Muholi Bester I, Mayotte

Zanele Muholi, Bester I, Mayotte, 2015, 80 x 60.5 cm, silver gelatin print, srom Somnyama Gonyama photographic series

Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi’s on-going photography series translates toHail the black lioness’ from isiZulu and is a testament to black life and identity, crafting a new, empowered, and unashamed narrative for blackness. Bester I, Mayotte, a striking self-portrait alludes to a painful colonial misconception of black women’s identities and is part of Somnyama Ngonyama. Muholi took a personal approach in the production of this series as the subjects consisted of close family members while aiming to promote black self-love, pride, and expression. This gives a glimpse of who and what kind of an artist Muholi is.

Muholi is a visual activist who produces portraits that confront political and social issues surrounding black bodies and the LGBTQI+ community – their main focus is to bring discourses that are deemed taboo to the fore. Muholi’s activism extends from photography to co-funding the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, which is a black lesbian feminist organisation that advocates for the members of the LGBTQI+ community’s rights and provides a safe space for women. They are also a part of the Inkanyiso collective, a media platform that features stories about queer people in South Africa.

All their images are carefully curated to reference the political, social, and economic imbalances that occur due to difference. In the image Bester I , Mayotte, the title reveals the purpose of its existence, as the title refers to Muholi’s mother who was a domestic worker. Naming the image directly addresses the issue of the spectacle of the Other, as colonial photographic representations of people of colour stripped away their individual identity by either referring to them with their occupation titles, such as the 1890s colonial photograph by Middlebrook titled ‘A zulu belle in her most fetching costume’ or gave them colonial names; failing to pronounce their black African names as Magoleng wa Selepe’s poem My name explains.

My Name by Magoleng wa Selepe

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

Look what they have done to my name . . .
The wonderful name of my great-great-grandmothers
Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa
The burly bureaucrat was surprised.
What he heard was music to his ears
‘Wat is daai, sê nou weer?’

‘I am from Chief Daluxolo Velayigodle of emaMpodweni
And my name is Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa.’

Messia, help me!

My name is so simple,
And yet so meaningful,
But to this man it is trash . . .

He gives me a name
Convenient enough to answer his whim:
I end up being
Maria . . .
I . . .
Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

Bester I, Mayotte is standing in an assertive position; holding her breath as is suggested by her teary eyes that are animated by a confrontational gaze. This creates an atmosphere that almost all black women can resonate with – defiance and steadfastness in the face of atrocities. Her attire consists of a high ponytail clipped with numerous pegs to create a crown; earrings made of pegs, and shoulders wrapped with a striped black and white mat that is clipped together with a peg. The use of household utensils comments on the issue of domestic work in South Africa and how that has been used to socio-politically identify black women. Muholi transforms these roles and tools which are used to degrade women – black women domestic workers specifically – into objects of beauty.

White lipstick seems to overline Muholi’s lips exaggerating their lip size. This may be in reference to racist caricatures of black people and blackface and shows how deeply ingrained the humiliation of black features are in society.

Most of Muholi’s work uses gelatin silver which makes black and white colours appear in starker contrast with one another. The use of the low lighting puts an emphasis on the subject’s lines, form and shape while also creating dark shadows that intensify the confrontational tone.. Another trademark of Muholi’s work is the exaggeration of the black skin tone in an effort to celebrate and expose the different shades of the black skin while encouraging black people to own up to their blackness – to reclaim their black identities.

Zanele Muholi, ID Crisis, 35.3 × 48 cm, silver gelatin print, from Only Half the Picture series (2003-2006)

Another recurring theme in Muholi’s body of work is the struggles and beauty of the LGBTQI+ community. They raise an awareness of a community that has often been cast out, and documents some of the emotional and physical stages of transformation that queer bodies go through to accept their true selves. The photograph titled ID Crisis, from Muholi’s Only Half the Picture series (2003-2006,) takes a slightly different approach from the image of  Bester I, Mayotte. The subjects are not named to protect their identities, as queer individuals experience hate crime and hate speech regularly in South Africa. Recently, a spate of murders and attacks on queer black people has led LGBTQI+ activists to rally around #SAQueerLivesMatter online. In ID Crisis, the title refers to the subject’s conflicting emotion and physical features as well as the activity (breast-binding) presented.  In the image we see the subject standing beside a window, wrapping bandages around their breasts to conceal them; we can assume that it is to modify their appearance. In a study concerning the breast-binding process, it was recorded that 51.5 % of the  FTM (Female To Male) participants tended to overcompress their breasts, resulting in myriad health concerns.

The image reveals some of the painful journeys that queer individuals endure, and also comments on the lack of support from health care facilities and practitioners that the LGBTQI+ community faces.

When talking about the LGBTQI+ community, it is important to talk about Sazi Jali, arguably the first African transgender person to graduate and receive her educational qualification under her correctly assigned gender marker. Jali is also an activist like Muholi, as she is the executive director of TransHope, a non-profit organisation that advocates for the human rights of the LGBTQI+ community and  gender diverse individuals. The members of the organisation promote no tolerance of discrimination and hate speech against the Trans community while also helping the members to get access to their medical needs and medications such as the anti-retroviral drug and hormone replacement therapy.

Members of the TransHope organisation

Jali’s photograph, Sazi Jali, was featured at Muholi’s Sydney biennale exhibition in 2020. The Art Biennale, or the Sydney biennial exhibition, is a visual arts festival that allows commissioned art pieces to be exhibited to the public. It also includes contemporary art, dance, and design.  Last year, the entire exhibition had to be digitally programmed due to Covid-19.

The 2020 exhibition marked the 22nd Art Biennale which was themed ‘NIRIN’ – healing, transformations and resetting the world and bringing  light to dark shadows. By exhibiting the Brave Beauties photography series, especially that of Sazi Jali, Muholi may have been reaffirming and outlining to all the other individuals that the era of change has come, given the successes Jali has acquired.

Zanele Muholi, Sazi Jali, Durban, 2020, silver gelatin print, from Brave Beauties photographic series (2014–)

The photographs were presented in a form of a wallpaper portrait to pay homage to the queer, lesbian and transwomen communities and the images contain stern gazes which give an impression that they were looking down on the audience – creating a feeling that the subject is looking at the audience rather than the other way around. The gaze was instrumental in demonstrating that the people photographed are not silent objects to judge or critique, but that they are complex and powerful human beings.

Muholi’s work has made it possible to start dialogues about queer rights in a country that is violently homophobic, and confront colonial and apartheid legacies in post-apartheid South Africa. Through doing this difficult work, they have laid the foundations of a new vision of blackness and queerness in the country – one premised on dignity, beauty, and pride.

Lebogang Tswelapele Chauke is a 23-year-old aspiring actress, scriptwriter, singer, and director from Mmakau in Brits, the North-West Province. She is currently doing her second year in Dramatic Arts (Bachelor of Arts in Dramatic Arts) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Chauke volunteers for numerous community organisations such as the Happy Feet organisation and Hands of Hope. She believes that art is therapeutic and brings inner healing unintentionally, as for one to produce art, they must consult their traumas and experiences for inspiration.

This review was published as part of the Creative Feel My Art Radar project which was made possible by the National Arts Council’s PESP programme.

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