Zanele Muholi is without doubt one of the most acclaimed photographers working today. Yet, their practice has never been properly contextualised in Sweden. Images from the series Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness, 2015–2018) are familiar from various group exhibitions or semi-posh homes where they hang as generic posters. Most of their other series, however, have been conspicuously absent.
To see Muholi’s collected work in Bildmuseet’s generous exhibition, which attempts to capture the many aspects and periods of their career, is thus a very welcome experience. I’m especially happy to see their work documenting lesbian life in South Africa, which encompasses moments of intimacy and a larger political life coloured – but not defined – by violence. The eponymous presentation is based on a conventional exhibition design focused on theme and chronology, which is almost inherent to the work, as Muholi predominantly works in series or suites which may last for decades, but which have their own intrinsic concepts.
The photographs in the early series Only Half the Picture were taken between 2002 and 2006, and in part depict victims of hate crimes, as in the fragile image Aftermath from 2004. Fragile, as it shows a body in underwear, cupping their hand just above their crotch; fragile, because it was taken a few days after the person had been raped. Or Hate Crime Survivor I (2004) where a police report is shown alongside a cropped lower body. The hands are again resting on the crotch, but here the body is fully dressed and the arms covered in hospital bracelets. There are also images of everyday life: a person putting on their binder [a compression undergarment worn to flatten chest] or a strap-on on a naked body. And the humorous Not Butch But My Legs Are (2005) where a pair of hairy calves are seen in slippers next to a coffee cup.
A part of Muholi’s explicitly activist practice is about chronicling LGBTQI+ communities and dealing with the unnatural violence that mutilates life. But Muholi never relies on the pitfalls of trauma depiction: fetishisation, voyeurism, detached compassion. Instead, their images rage against the state of things, thereby creating an opening for change. By depicting what the world allows, they are calls for action. By portraying stigmatised sexual violence which demands silence and guilt of its victims, Muholi’s activism goes far beyond the art space.
Muholi’s images are sometimes reminiscent of the work of war correspondents testifying to human rights abuses. Yet, they often contain details that render them something completely different than superficial representations or tokenism. When a victim’s face is obscured, it is not just a practical measure to keep them safe. It also contributes to a sense of respect, care, and integrity that infuses Muholi’s images with reverence and saves them from being exploitative even as the portray the most intimate and egregious abuses.
There is a similar charge of respect in the portrait series Being (2006–ongoing), in which couples, sometimes naked, are shown embracing, for example, in bed or while washing. Seeing lesbian relationships portrayed so tenderly feels unusual, uplifting, and necessary. The images become spaces of intimacy as well as sexual agency. And yet, again, Muholi has a very distinct gaze, which never allows the images to become objectifying, even though there is always a risk of that.
The exhibition does of course include Muholi’s famous self-portraits, in which they turn the camera on themself while gazing back at the viewer to reclaim their blackness, their history, and their language. Throughout these images, the underlying current in Muholi’s practice is crystallised, blossoming into a cohesive series which is stripped down and demanding because the work is so saturated with meaning. In these self-portraits, with titles in isiZulu, Muholi recreates scenes from their family history, from colonial history, from suffering, grief, and joy. Here, I sometimes miss a deeper contextualisation by the museum, as the symbols and meanings that carry the images can be difficult to decipher for an outside observer.
Bildmuseet’s exhibition is successful in showing the breadth of Muholi’s photographic practice and activism. Despite the substantial number of images, I was left longing for more. For me, it’s a privilege just to see the Brave Beauties series (2014–ongoing), which shows trans women and non-binary people participating in beauty pageants, and their struggle to normalise their existence in the cities and townships where they live – i.e. the same places where they are most at risk of violence. Here, they are shown in regal outfits with their eyes strongly fixed on the camera, their heads held high. Yet, Muholi’s choice to situate their work primarily in townships could have been elucidated further. It is mentioned in passing, but I would have wanted the exhibition to somehow recognize how radical the choice to centre their work on the working class actually is, and how that affects the images.
Even though the exhibition is extensive, beautiful, shocking, and wonderful, the museum’s thoughtless contextualisation drags it down unnecessarily. Race is still a controversial word in Sweden, and is here translated into the Swedish word for ethnicity. This is outrageous, especially when it comes to Somnyama Ngonyama, which deals explicitly with both Muholi’s ethnicity (Zulu) and race (Black); it is a cowardly gesture that reduces the nuances of an artist working in a country rife with ethnic tensions and xenophobia towards other African migrants.
And to not even be able to speak of Apartheid as a system of racial segregation is deeply upsetting and goes completely against the artistic and political struggle that Muholi wants to highlight. This is not only counterproductive, but risks muddling rather than illuminating one of recent history’s most serious crimes against humanity, as well as fuelling the misconception that African, or Black, is the name of a single ethnicity, instead of thousands.