Zanele Muholi, (South African, b. 1972), Ayanda Magoloza, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012 (partial), Silver Gelatin Print. © ZANELE MUHOLI. Courtesy of STEVENSON Cape Town and Johannesburg. All photos via Williams College Museum of Art.

Who Do We Think They Are?

A self-described visual-activist, Zanele Muholi turns her eye upon the faces of the marginalized GLBT communities of South Africa -- and the faces gaze back.

Zanele Muholi

February 1, 2014 – April 27, 2014

Williams College Museum of Art

A photographic portrait contains the seeds of conflict. By necessity, each portrait taken involves three parties: the subject, the photographer and the audience. Every subject has an expectation of how she or he wants the world to see them. Every photographer brings an agenda to his or her work. Every viewer uses individual frames and lenses to view the world.

These three contexts blend and blur. This condition renders determining the innate, imposed and projected difficult. Add to the mix sexual identity and the equation becomes infinitely more complex.

First, how the extent of your sexual orientation defines your identity fluctuates wildly. Second, sexual preference may or may not be related to how you identify your gender. Third, the physical gender you were given by accident of birth may or may not align with your psychological or spiritual gender. Finally, the world wants clean and simple roles, e.g., gay men should be only “flaming sissies”; lesbians should be only “butch dykes”. Put all of these conflicting interests of how people are identified into a cauldron like the sexual, racial, health and class conflicts of South Africa, and the potential for exploitation becomes severe.

Zanele Muholi deftly navigates these multiple matrices. A self-described visual-activist, Muholi has a clear intent to give a face to the marginalized GLBT communities in South Africa. The exhibition, Zanele Muholi at Williams College Museum of Art, 1 February through 27 April 2014, includes four videos and numerous photographs.

The artist exhibited three different collections of photographs: Faces and Phases, Beulahs, and Being. Faces and Phases contains a collection of portraits of women who, just by the act of agreeing to be photographed by the artist, have participated in a political act. The portraits range from embodiments of vulnerability to outright defiance. Nomonde Mbusi, Berea, Johannesburg portrays an unclothed woman looking directly at the camera. The image provokes feelings of melancholy and exposure. The figure wears only a head scarf. The photo’s cropping conceals the figure’s nakedness. Tilting the head forward, looking up toward the viewer, and having the woman’s mouth slightly open generates a sense of apprehension.

Muholi creates a whole different effect in Manucha, Muizenberg, Cape Town. In this print a woman appears above a row of peacock feathers. The framing creates a pseudo glamor. The bends in the curtains in the background, which tilt in toward the central figure, subtly reinforces the glamour context. The subject’s Mona Lisa-like smirk sets the image

In Thembi Nyoka, Parktown, Johannesburg, everything about the image confronts the viewer. It’s filled with masculine codes. The woman has a shaved head and well developed arms. The clothes read as masculine. All of this is set off by two gestures. The figure crosses her arms over her chest and leans back slightly, creating an aura of confidence. Finally, the woman seems to be blowing a kiss or whistling at the viewer. This image asserts not just her sexual preference, but also her gender identification. These images create the appearance of the subject as the co-author of the image.

By showing many portraits together, Mouholi illustrates the complexity of the relationship she has with her subjects. Through comparison, you can see how she manipulates as much as records the portraits. One of the subtlest effects is variation of focus. Changing the sharpness of an image changes its entire context.

This becomes clear looking at two images: Nokuthula Chladhia, Berea, Johannesburg, shows a minister looking directly at the audience, and Lesego Magwai, Pretoria, shows a woman in a beret, head tilted down and to the side, a smirk on her face. The two images create two vastly different auras. The former persona seems reserved, the latter, confident and confronting. Scale also plays a large part in these two affects as Nokuthula Dhladhia is depicted slightly smaller than life size and Lesego Magwai slightly larger.

The use of focus is far more subtle—but equally effective. The artist shoots the first image slightly out of focus while the second image is razor sharp. This creates a covert narrative of control. The first image reads as if the photo is being imposed upon it—like a government identification card. The second image reads as if the subject asserted herself into the photo.

The transgendered men depicted in the Muholi Beulah series also boldly define their perceptions. The photographed men wear their ostentations like armor. They embody the expression that the best defense is a good offense. Indeed, these men assert their sexuality to the world with a preemptive strike of perception.

In Martin Machapa, a man wearing jeans and a bright print shirt tied in a knot confronts the viewer. The subject holds a classic contrapposto position, like a Raphael St. Michael. Muholi shoots the figure standing in a hallway. This creates a sense of the subject owning the entire frame. There is plenty of area for him to recede to in the background, but he stands there before you, up front.

In Mini Mbatha, Durben, Glebelands the figure takes a feminine pose. The subject wears a skirt and arranges a set of combs in his hair resembling a warrior’s headdress. These assertions of sexuality and gender overwhelm whatever purpose Muholi or the audience brings to the photos.

Zanele Muholi, (South African, b. 1972), Mini Mbatha, Durban, Glebelands, Jan. 2010, C-print. © Zanele Muholi
and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg.

The artist’s Being series depicts women engaged in physical acts of intimacy. The viewer’s response speaks more to their attitudes and cultural frames than to the images themselves. Several images simultaneously illustrate physical intimacy and emotional disconnection. In Apinda and Ayanda, the artist shows two naked women in a lying down embrace. Telling is the difference in each expression. The woman on the left smiles and appears to be radiantly happy. The woman on the right has only about a third of her face showing out of the shadows, covered by her arm and seems far more apprehensive.

The exhibition includes a self-portrait titled Caitlin and I, Boston, USA in which the artist lies naked, flat on her belly. On top of her lays Catlin, also fully naked. The images are both visually stunning and uncomfortable. Abstractly, the two bodies sensuously entangle each other.

The piece is shot as a triptych, which does two things. First, it gives it a slight religious connotation. Second, it allows the artist to distort and abstract the two bodies. The central image is skewed and slightly larger than it should be. Through this slight discord, Muholi turns the tables on the viewer. The viewer participates in constructing the image. So—the photographer may press the button to take the photo—but a lot of what is seen is more imagined than innate.

Without knowing the actual people who posed for Muholi’s photographs, there is no way to know if they are documents, expositions or mirrors. The artist creates the illusion of seeing beyond the skin into the very person photographed. This uncertainty allows empathy.

Both Muholi’s subjects and viewers deal with the problem of perception. How we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves rarely align perfectly. If Muholi’s intent was to redefine her subjects from the “other” to “us”, evoking this shared humanity achieves this end.

Zanele Muholi, (South African, b. 1972), Kekeletso Khena, Green Market Square, Cape Town, 2012, Silver Gelatin Print. © ZANELE MUHOLI. Courtesy of STEVENSON Cape Town and Johannesburg.