An article published in The New Yorker in 2012 about sexual violence in South Africa is illustrated with a photograph of a woman with cropped hair standing in a field of plants as tall as her shoulders. Her head rises above the foliage and her gaze rests on something outside the frame. The caption identifies the portrait as ‘Lungile Cleopatra Dladla, who was raped in this field’; the photograph was taken by Zanele Muholi. The immediacy of this subject matter, and the sensitivity and intimacy of this portrait is the heart of Muholi’s work.
Muholi, who has been documenting members of the LGBT community in South Africa since 2006, calls herself a ‘visual activist’. The New Yorker article cites the grim statistics behind her cause: in 2009 the International Criminal Police Organization found that 50 percent of women in South Africa will be raped at least once in their life. Lesbians are twice as likely as straight women to be sexually assaulted, due to the practice of ‘corrective rape’, by which men rape lesbians in an attempt to ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality.
South Africa has a rich tradition of photography with a strong political bent, and Muholi herself was a student of the Market Photo Workshop, established by David Goldblatt, who documented social conditions during the apartheid era. Often these efforts fall into the gaps between photojournalism, editorial photography and visual art, and are not always readily embraced by the contemporary art establishment. But Muholi is an exception. Her ‘Faces and Phases’ series (2006–ongoing) was featured in Documenta 13 and was awarded the Fine Prize at the 2013 Carnegie International. What makes her work so potent and desired by the art world, while projects like those of Mikhael Subotzky or Guy Tillim sit more uneasily in galleries? It may be too cynical to attribute it to the grid format, reminiscent of conceptual art, in which her black and white portraits are hung; an issue that ticks curatorial boxes; or even the fact that her subjects are often beautiful women. I think it has less to do with the photographs’ formal qualities than the fact that her sheer will and sense of urgency to communicate her cause is palpable, if not in the gazes of her portrait subjects then in the writing and material that surrounds them.
Muholi’s recent exhibition at Wentrup in Berlin was her first solo show in Germany. It opened with three colour photographs from her series ‘Beulahs’ (2010–ongoing), picturing gay men in scant outfits reminiscent of ‘tribal’ costumes, posing against cement walls. In Mini and Le Sishi, Glebelands, Durban, Jan. 2010 (2010), two shirtless boys stand together: one has his hand cocked on his hip, wearing a beaded skirt pulled provocatively low. The other rests his hands on his companion’s shoulder, wearing four large plastic bracelets on one arm and several rainbow-coloured combs stuck in his hair. Muholi achieves a level of comfort between herself and her subjects that somehow resists objectifying their nearly nude bodies and sexualized poses.
The sumptuous, large-scale colour prints of ‘Beulahs’ represent a less straightforwardly documentary approach than the black and white portraits of ‘Faces and Phases’. On the largest wall, 60 selections from this ongoing project were arranged in a grid. In these images of members of the lesbian community in Africa, the half-length portrait format remains relatively consistent and unifying, though their clothing, backdrops and ages vary widely. One young woman has her hair slicked defiantly into a spike on her forehead; another glances shyly over her shoulder toward the camera. One wears what looks like a priest’s habit; another wears a military uniform. It’s a diverse population, but what unites them is the direct exchange between Muholi’s subjects, or ‘participants’ as she calls them, and the camera. The artist is above all a conduit for their visibility.
On a third wall, a projection of a short video produced by Human Rights Watch in 2013 featured behind-the-scenes footage of the artist and participants, along with interviews with Muholi herself. The documentary reveals the depth to which she’s involved in the LGBT community in South Africa and further afield, in particular with Inkanyiso, the organization she founded to train others to tell their own stories through photography and documentaries. ‘You have to document. You are forced to document,’ insists Muholi. Part of me wished she hadn’t included the video in the show – she could easily have let the photographic work stand on its own and trusted visitors to want to educate themselves about the facts behind it. Instead, the tenor of the quietly powerful photographs made the video seem comparatively didactic. These two parallel strands of her project – the artistic and the activist – could be either more seamlessly combined, or more autonomous. In this show, they sat somewhat jarringly alongside each other, because it’s difficult to apply the same kind of aesthetic criteria to an educational web video as to the photographs themselves.
But the main goal of Muholi’s exhibition is ethical not aesthetic. Her photographic series give her political message a sturdy aesthetic form, but she may think that combining them with interpretive material gives her project maximum visibility by appealing to a wider audience. Her activism speaks in a different idiom than art and this show did not always conform to the usual codes of the gallery exhibition. It is a testament to her photographic work that it can thrive in multiple contexts, from Documenta to Human Rights Watch. Hers is a project primarily about visibility, and I trust she’ll keep pushing this issue into the spotlight, in any form or context.