Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence @Brooklyn Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 85 black and white and color phoptographs, displayed in the Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the 4th floor of the museum. The exhibition was organized by Catherine J. Morris and Eugenie Tsai.

60 of the works on view are black and white photographs from the Faces and Phases project, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against grey walls. All of these works are gelatin silver prints, made between 2006 and 2014. Images from this series are also shown as a slideshow near one of the entrances. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Steidl/Walther Collection (here). An enlarged passport photo, a timeline of hate crimes and funerals, and a wall of chalked testimonials are included in this area of the exhibit.

25 color photographs from the Weddings series are shown in an adjacent room, framed in brown wood/white and unmatted, and hung against white walls. 24 of the works are chromogenic prints, made in 2013; 1 work is an archival pigment print, made in 2014. The show also include 1 video (Being Scene), made in 2012, 2 works made from beads glued on wood panel, from 2012, and an installation combining a video and a funeral casket, from 2014. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we think about storytelling in virtually any form (the written word, the visual image, the moving image etc.), one of the first issues that arises is identifying the vantage point of the observer. In many projects, the artist is an outsider looking in, and that distance often allows a photographer to apply a more dispassionate or even anthropological stance toward the subject at hand – in effect taking stock, evaluating, making judgments from the safety of afar. But when the observer is an insider, looking out, that arm’s length clinical dynamic changes. Suddenly, we are in much closer, where the emotions are more raw, the risks are more real, and the insights are more authentic and unmediated. An insider’s story often pulses with unmatched vitality, simply due to the inherent nature of its informed personal perspective.

The South African photographer/artist Zanele Muholi represents a new breed of energized insider storytelling. Part advocate, part organizer, part documentarian, and part community member herself, she has spent the past decade making art that centers on and celebrates the black lesbian/transgender community in her native country, a group that had been consistently overlooked and marginalized prior to her sustained attentions. Her photographs, videos, and installations attempt to tell a largely untold and invisible story, combining the acceptance and trust of Catherine Opie’s S&M portraits with the unflinching documentation of Ernest Cole’s exposé of South African mining conditions – hers is a story that is both intensely and immediately personal and painfully refracted by the larger social and political realities that surround it.

Very few museum shows that I have visited in recent years are as emotionally polarized as this one – the exhibit sways from love to hate and back again with powerful lurching force. Muholi begins with stark ugliness – a systematic, chronological catalog of hate crimes and funerals of LGBTI community members (matched by a huge passport stamped DECEASED), offset by a wall of brutal hand-written confessionals, full of beatings, rapes, threats, killings, and astonishing assaults, all told first hand. As primary testimony depicting the environment that the black lesbian/transgender community is actually experiencing in South Africa today, it’s a disheartening, sobering, hand wringing, anger inducing set of evidence.

With the mood set at simmering outrage, Muholi’s soulful black and white portraits of friends and acquaintances (including herself) feel quietly enduring and almost triumphant. Shown as a massive wall-filling grid, the parade of faces stares out with a knowing swirl of strength and tentativeness, confidence and vulnerability. Each portrait represents a refashioning or reexamining of identity inside this intense crucible of rejection, the struggle to express one’s own personality in the face of such negativity etched on each and every visage. And yet, Muholi has found a powerful sense of perseverance in these people, of bravely (and proudly in some cases) standing to be counted, against the odds and against the prevailing tide of the society in which they live. Each serious, often unsmiling face, seems to search the viewers in the gallery, silently appraising our stance and asking us whether we will be ones that threaten or support. These are people who have seen judgment and violence before, but they stand ready once again to be seen (and hopefully welcomed) for who they are. While Muholi’s portraits from this ongoing Faces and Phases project have been seen in many other places at this point (including dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012), they retain their powerful presence seemingly undiluted; the pictures bore down into a deep vein of rich universal humanity that resonates crisply and clearly even after multiple viewings.

The mood lightens appreciably in the adjacent gallery, where images from joyful same sex marriages line the walls. In these pictures, love and celebration outweigh loss and tragedy (at least for one special day), with smiling couples and large wedding parties in matching outfits (of various genders for both bride and groom) seeming to burst with playful enthusiasm and affection. The close ups of sparkly shoes, intertwined hand, rings, fans, and details of flowered gowns could have come from anywhere, but seen inside the context of all the obstacles that have been overcome by these particular people, the unconstrained happiness and tears captured by Muholi are that much more sweet. Mostly, these pictures, and a blurred video of Muholi and her partner having sex (also on view in this room), are about finding a kind of normalcy in life, of having the things most other couples take for granted. These photographs are less compelling as stand alone art objects than most of Muholi’s other works, but in contrast to the severity of the portraits in the preceding room, they make an effective foil. An installation in the last room of the exhibition brings the two opposing emotional forces into even closer proximity, with a video of the exuberant joy of singing and dancing at various weddings matched by the harsh newspaper headlines of LGBTI rape and murder (executed in African beading) and a transparent coffin holding the artist’s own picture.

What comes through most prominently in this artistic roller-coaster of emotions is Muholi’s relentless duty to record what has heretofore gone unrecorded. Her intense passion for this community of people, and her desire to be their advocate and storyteller flows through all of these projects, with visible strength and conviction. Using her camera as a tool, she’s leading from within, making durable pictures that not only document what is happening to her community (in effect, writing its history for the first time), but also leveraging her own momentum to hopefully catalyze lasting change.

Collector’s POV: This is a museum show, so there are of course no posted prices. Zanele Muholi is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York (here). Her work has not reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Monolith Editions (here). Softcover (7 x 9.5 inches), 48 pages, with 27 color photographs. Includes a short text by the artist. Design ... Read on.

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