I love that even though I now spend my summers in Provence in an adorable house in the foothills of the Luberon I don’t have far to go to see good African art. The Photography Festival at Arles – Les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d’Arles – is an hour away and this year South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi curated with artist Walead Beshty the exhibition Systemically open?New Forms of Production of the Contemporary Image, which among other artists showed her latest body of work Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the Dark Lioness).
I just loved that hard won self-assurance
I encountered Muholi’s work in 2009 in South Africa and met her in Bamako during the Rencontres de Bamako. She was just starting to get known internationally for her work on the LBGTI community. Already an activist she was speaking up for this community that was greatly suffering from hate crimes in South Africa and beyond. At the time she was getting attention for a body of work, the Miss D’vine series. She photographed black queens and drag artists set in an “African” landscape.
“The photos examine how gender and queer identities and bodies are shaped by – but also resist, through their very existence – dominant notions of what it means to be black and feminine”. (Zanele Muholi, 2009). This series was visually alluring and conceptually provocative. I liked how she captured these quiet private moments with tenderness bringing the viewer into their private world.
Simultaneously she was already working on a long term project, the series Faces and Phases where she documents members of the South African LBGTI community. The work is very different formally. Color had been reduced to black and white. All theatricality had been removed in favor of a formal and deadpan approach. Intent on giving visibility to a community that has suffered from being invisible her focus is unwavering as she imbues the women with a pregnant dignity. This series has received much international attention and praise.
I was familiar with the body of work being shown at Arles– a work of self-portraiture – but I was not expecting the huge scale of the display. Installed in one of the recently renovated Ateliers of the Luma space Zanele had had some of her photographs printed the size of the huge walls. Wow! There was no way of avoiding her unflinching gaze.
In this new body of work she turns the camera on herself. The work is essentially autobiographical. Born in Umlazi, Durban to a working class family (her South African mother was South African domestic worker and her Malawian father a day laborer) Muholi was at first a hairstylist and factory worker before embracing fully her artistic career. There is a theatrical aspect to the work as she uses props, such as materials she created herself and found objects, clothe pins, scouring pads, various hats, wigs to name a few which reference her experiences. She plays with the color of her skin, most of the time darkening it, “reclaiming her darkness” she says.
I fancied more her photographs of gay women in their own homes
Unlike Samuel Fosso or Cindy Sherman she is not pretending to be someone else. On the contrary she is making herself vulnerable by exposing aspects of herself and her history, which has been shaped by South African political, cultural and social history. It is as if she is play acting in front of the mirror like I remember doing when I was younger but with great vulnerability as she exposes herself to herself, and to all of us. The result is a multifaceted Zanele, increasingly hard to pinpoint and because of that, that much more fascinating and endearing. All the while she is forcing her audience, us, to confront our own discomfort with some of her uncompromising exposure. Read here a description of her process.
“I have embarked on a discomforting self-defining journey, rethinking the culture of the selfie, self-representation and self-expression. I have investigated how photographers can question and deal with the body as material or mix it with objects to further aestheticise black personhood. My abiding concern is, can photographers look at themselves and question whom they are in society and the positions that they hold, and maintain these roles thereafter? ( Somnyama Ngonyama, Zanele Muholi, Stevenson).
Zanele Muholi was a little tardy for a scheduled talk during the opening week of the Arles festival. She eventually appeared, slowly moving towards the panel like a queen . She had an amazing hairdo almost 8 inches high above her head. What a great example!