Zanele Muholi’s Tate show exudes defiance and strength

Nancy Durrant
·2-min read
<p>Tate visitors pose in front of a self portrait photograph from an on-going series entitled 'Somnyama Ngonyama' by South African visual activist Zanele Muholi</p> (AFP via Getty Images)

Tate visitors pose in front of a self portrait photograph from an on-going series entitled 'Somnyama Ngonyama' by South African visual activist Zanele Muholi

(AFP via Getty Images)

A wall of faces, all black and white - but all black - stare out, unsmiling. Are they wary? Defensive? Proud? All of the above, perhaps, not without reason.

This powerful display, about halfway through the new Tate Modern exhibition by South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi (whose pronouns are they/them), represents their ongoing Faces and Phases project, which - with 500+ photographs and counting - forms a collective portrait of that country’s Black lesbians, transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.

The result of sustained relationships and collaboration (something which lies at the heart of Muholi’s practice), these pictures exist as an archive devoted to a marginalised group that - despite the 1996 post-apartheid Constitution of South Africa being one of the first to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation - still routinely suffers prejudice and hate crimes. Another, smaller but no less impactful display close by is devoted to those participants who have died. Mercifully perhaps, it doesn’t tell you how, but the twin spectres of violence and HIV/Aids haunt nearly every room of this show.

That’s not to say it’s grim, or dismal. Instead, there is an overriding feeling of defiance, of power, of resistance, of strength in vulnerability, of joy in the face of pain. There is much beauty here, in the happiness of queer couples, depicted going about their daily, ordinary, loving lives together in Muholi’s Being series. In the dignified, inspiring films sharing queer South Africans’ stories. In a knockout portrait of Mellisa Mbambo, Miss Gay South Africa 2017, resplendent in bikini and sash on a Durban beach - once a segregated space for whites only. In the photographs of all-singing, all-dancing, rainbow-adorned funerals, celebrating lives cruelly cut short.

Muholi turns the camera on themself, too, in striking, theatrical series that explore the politics of race and representation (Somnyama Ngonyama - the titles are in Muholi’s first language of isiZulu, defying the colonial impulse to change names rather than learn to say them) or embracing non-heteronormative concepts of beauty, with Muholi posing as ‘Miss Black Lesbian’, in full beauty pageant get-up, with visible body hair and tattoos.

All of which, I’m aware, makes it sound a bit worthy. It is - worthy of a major public show, worthy of a visit whether you’ve experienced prejudice or not. It’s humane, hardcore, beautiful, and packs one hell of a punch.

From December 2 to June 6, 2021