Visual Resistance

Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) meets our eyes from the other side of the above photograph. The visual activist clutches a chain of airbags whilst lying nude on a blanket. Behind them are endless stacks of newspapers that reach up beyond the bounds of the frame. It’s an intimate self-portrait that is filled with confidence and strength; the subject is fully aware of the camera and also in complete control of what we see.

Julie I, Parktown, Johannesburg (2016) is part of the ongoing Somnyama Ngonyama series, which Muholi began in 2012 as “a statement of self-presentation through portraiture.” Here, the artist reclaims Blackness in stylised compositions that draw attention to their identity. Moreover, the scenes speak to key events in South African history, from the infamy of Larry Scully’s (1922-2002) The Black Madonna to the 2012 massacre in Marikana, where police opened fire during a strike, shooting 34 dead.

The image-maker has devoted a career to resisting oppression. They rose to prominence in the early 2000s whilst highlighting the stories of Black LGBTQIA+ people in their home country. Survivors of “curative” rape and hate crimes were shown in Only Half the Picture (2002-2006), which formed part of their first solo exhibition in 2004. Now, 20 years after this poignant debut, Muholi shares the scope of their practice in a major retrospective in London. The self-titled show at Tate Modern features over 300 pieces, spanning from the early 2000s up to Somnayama Ngonyama’s newest additions. It’s a testament to two decades of showing harrowing realities of discrimination, and to the power of speaking up and pushing back.

Tate Modern, Zanele Muholi | Until 26 January

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Zanele Muholi Julie I, Parktown, Johannesburg 2016 Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 660 x 1000 mm Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi.
  2. Zanele Muholi Ntozakhe II, Parktown 2016 Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 1000 x 720 mm Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi.