JTF (just the facts): 20 black-and-white gelatin silver prints in white frames and one black-and-white photographic mural hang on the white walls of the gallery’s two rooms. The 13 photographs and the photographic mural in the gallery’s front room are from a series of self-portraits begun in 2014. They range in size from roughly 20×17 inches to 44x 31 inches and are available in editions of 8+2AP. The site-specific wall mural was printed in an edition of 2, with dimensions variable. The 7 works in the gallery’s smaller space are all recent portraits of trans women. Each is roughly 35×25 inches in size, and was likewise printed in an edition of 8+2AP. The earliest work in the show is dated 2013, and the most recent work is dated 2017. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: South African photographer Zanele Muholi, who is a lesbian woman of color, prefers to describe herself as visual activist. She has gained international attention for “Faces and Phases” (2006-present), her series of documentary portraits of lesbian, gay, and transgender black South Africans. Although all of South Africa’s citizens are equal under the law, queer and trans people living there are rarely given equal protection. Muholi’s photographs from this series give visibility to a population that, when acknowledged at all, are all too often targets of sexual and physical violence. (One of her subjects, poet Busi Sigasa, has been murdered in a hate crime since posing for Muholi; many others had already been victims of harassment or “corrective rape.”)
The photographs in Muholi’s stunning new show at Yancy Richardson build on these straightforward and tender depictions. But here she has advanced her activism from local to global and changed her approach from documentary to theatrical.
The exhibition includes a room devoted to “Brave Beauties,” a new series of glamorous photographic portraits of trans women—some of whom accompanied the artist to New York for Muholi’s #VisualActivism, a commissioned project for last week’s Performa 17 that installed images of her work on billboards in Times Square and throughout the New York City subway system, as well as presenting performances and organizing with local LBTQI communities. In Somizy Sincwala, Parktown (2014), a lithe young person with an afro and in full makeup poses in little but a heavy silver chain-link necklace and a pair of skimpy, black, bikini underwear. In Yaya Mavundla 1, Parktown (2017), a friend stands hipshot in a two-piece, midriff-baring costume made of plastic wrap.
In the front room are selections from “Somnyama Ngonyama” (meaning “Hail, the Dark Lioness” in Muneli’s native language of isiZulu), a series of extraordinary self-portraits that Muholi began 2012. With panache and everyday objects picked up on her travels, the artist cannily deconstructs the various ways black women have been represented through the ages, even as she invents new and powerful images of herself that draw on a melange of personal memories, historical events, and cultural references.
These appear to include, but are not limited to, Western ethnographic studies of the 19th- and 20th-centuries, the South African Apartheid-era photographs of Singarum Jeevaruthnam “Kitty” Moodley, whose sitters frequently presented themselves not as they were seen, but how they wished to be seen; South African photographer Santu Mofukeng’s more recent photographs of daily life in South African townships; Cameroonian Samuel Fosso’s gender-bending self-portraits; and the work of American women photographers such as Lorna Simpson and Cindy Sherman.
In some photographs Muholi appears decked out in commercial items repurposed to resemble traditional ornamentation—including a neck decoration made from what looks like a stack of snakeskin-printed traveler’s neck supports. In photographs like these, tongue-in-cheek but trenchant, she brings viewers, both black and white, up against ingrained and internalized stereotypes of blackness.
Works from this series sometimes make reference to more personal and immediate experiences. In one photograph not exhibited here but on view in a gallery handout, Muholi paid homage to her mother, Bester Muholi, a domestic worker for 40 years, by donning an exuberant hair ornament made of clothes pins; in another she photographed herself bare-chested in a miner’s hat and goggles to commemorate the 2012 killing 34 striking miners by police.
One photograph, seeming to look back in time to the heyday of studio portraiture in South Africa between 1890 and 1950, presents Muholi in the sort of Western-style bow tie, vest, and jacket that would have been worn by middle-class South African gentlemen of the early 20th century, and, at the same time, the piled high, elaborate hairdo of a woman from the same era (Muhol’s version was created with foam rubber tubing). More surreal transformations include a portrait of Muholi in which she has attached two long rectangles of foam to the sides of her head with earphones and topped them with a gas mask, turning herself into a combination of tribal dancer and robot.
All of Muholi’s self-portraits are distinguished by the coal-black color of her skin, achieved by pushing the contrast during the photographic process. In the handout, author M Neelika Jayawardane has suggested that this darkened skin is a response to the “pass laws” of South Africa’s Apartheid years, which required all black persons to carry a passbook bearing their photographs. A favored camera for taking these photographs was Polaroid’s ID-2 camera, with its “boost” flash button, which enabled the camera to take clearer photographs of dark-skinned people.
But to me, the darkened skin reminds me of the uniformly inky color of the people in contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall’s canvases. “The idea of those paintings,” Marshall told the New York Times last year, “is that blackness is non-negotiable in those pictures. It’s also unequivocal — they are black—that’s the thing that I mean for people to identify immediately. They are black to demonstrate that blackness can have complexity.” In “Somnyama Ngonyama”, she reclaims her complexity, her individuality, her body, and her image, much as she has, in other series, reclaimed the complexity, individuality, bodies, and images of others.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $7000 (for the works in the “Brave Beauties” series) and $20000 (for the photographic wall mural). As of this writing, works from the “Brave Beauties” series were still available; however, the complete editions from many of the works in the “Somnyama Ngonyama” series have already sold out. Muholi’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.