Zanele Muholi’s works at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam belong to three different ongoing series: ‘Faces and Phases’, ‘Brave Beauties’ and ‘Hail the Dark Lioness – Somnyama Ngonyama’.
Dedicated to a friend who died of HIV related complications, “Faces and Phases’ is a visual record of black lesbians and transgender people in her home country of South Africa, a project she started in 2006.
Though South Africa legalised same sex marriage in the same year, it remains a country plagued by discrimination and extreme violence against sexual minorities. A place where murder and corrective rape are common occurrence.
Together with her film We Live in Fear (2013) and the LGBTI community Inkanyiso.org she founded in 2009, this series of portraits is not just a testimony to the dangers and risks taken by the participants to the project – some of them have been killed in the meantime – and by the wider community in South Africa, but a way to affirm the right to be visible, accepted and respected. Zanele Muholi‘s mission is to fight physical and psychological abuse by confronting and educating the viewers with positive images of individuals comfortable in their own skin.
Started in 2014, ‘Brave Beauties‘ is a follow up to ‘Faces and Phases’ with the similar aim of quashing the conventional negative perception of homosexuals and transgender people by replacing it with an open, proud and dignified representation of the members of this marginalised community.
‘Hail the Dark Lioness – Somnyama Ngonyama’ is the most striking of the three series exhibited here.
Taken throughout Europe, North America and Africa, this is a series of distinctive and eye-catching self-portraits whose depth is not always immediately apparent. Their considerable appeal is the result of combining a classical painting composition with the style so typical of fashion photography.
The enhanced black and white contrast of the photographs makes the tone of the skin darker and richer. Zanele Muholi‘s first unapologetic statement here is arcoxia her blackness.
Through a formidable variety of props, she delves into African history, explores her past, highlights social injustice and human rights abuse. In the main shot by the entrance – Julile I – she is lying naked on inflated bags, a reference to the fibroids they removed from her uterus in 2016. Bester I, with a headpiece made of pegs, is a homage to the domesticity of her mother, whose photos represented her first foray into photography. In Phila I the domestic environment becomes servitude, a theme touched also in MaID (which stands both for My Identity and Maid).
Zanele Muholi is at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam until 15/10/2017