Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 2011 or 2012. The prints are each sized 30×20 and are available in editions of 8. This is the artist’s first solo show in the United States. A monograph of the first part of this body of work was published by Prestel in 2010 (here) and is available from the gallery for $40. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Zanele Muholi’s black and white portraits of individuals from the black lesbian and transgender communities in South Africa and neighboring countries are bold and powerful. Hung tightly together in a parade of three quarter poses, her images celebrate a group of people who have seen hardships, been misunderstood or overlooked, and have endured outright persecution. Each photograph brims with simmering intensity and authentic connection, and together they leave a memorable impression.

While close cropped hair and androgynous clothing are common to many of these portraits, the faces reveal emotions and mindsets that cover a wide spectrum. Some sitters have a steely swagger, full of confidence, measuring the viewer in the event of a confrontation. Other subjects are more guarded and wary, with arms folded, waiting for the all too common judgment with reserve and trepidation. And still others radiate quiet curiosity and warmth, genuinely open and welcoming. Muholi has found the strength and beauty in every single sitter, engaging each one with directness and honesty.

Compositionally, Muholi has been careful with pattern and tonality, using contrasts of skin tone and background to create visual interest. Details like a razor blade necklace, a sweep of hair, or a bow tie help provide clues to personalities, while whitewashed cinder blocks and dress motifs add surrounding context. But in the end, it is the parade of unrelenting faces that gathers your gaze. Again and again, she presents the eyes of engaging individuals, respectfully allowing us to look right into their hopes and sorrows. It’s photographic portraiture done with consistently exceptional grace and humility, a bravura performance of attention and observation.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4200 each. Muholi’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Zanele Muholi, Yancey Richardson Gallery, Prestel Publishing

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