On a recent trip to New York, South African artist Zanele Muholi traveled with an entourage. She brought 22 fellow South Africans with her, including several who had sat for recent photographs, and she covered a significant portion of their travel costs. “Every individual is a participant in my project in one way or another,” Mulholi told me—by which she meant her subjects do more than just pose for her camera.
Muholi, who was recently awarded France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award, calls herself a “visual activist,” and she was certainly active when in New York for Performa 17, the latest iteration of the performance-minded biennial. At talk events, she discussed aspects of her work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. Concurrent with the conversations was a show of new photographs at Yancey Richardson Gallery, where Muholi exhibited photographs of members of South Africa’s black LGBTQI+ community as well as a series of self-portraits with the artist’s steely gaze showing a sense of fierceness—a characteristic that has proven critical to her career.
When we met at the Performa Hub, the biennial’s headquarters, Muholi was joined by members of her collective, including OdiDiva, a drag performer from Cape Town who had been singing for an audience before joining the interview. Beside us also sat a gynecologist, the mother of a slain activist who Muholi once photographed, and a young photographer being mentored by the artist. “This goes beyond just performance,” Muholi said. “It’s a way in which we radicalize spaces.”
Of particular interest to her is a desire to educate people who might not have an understanding of what is going on in different parts of South Africa. “They are history makers,” she said of her many collaborators, adding that the collective is united by experiences of bigotry and abuse. She hopes her project will act as a living archive—something that can gather people and allow their stories to be heard.
The idea of creating broader visibility for her community is crucial for Muholi. During Performa, this took the form of appearances at different significant sites, including the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and the Stonewall Inn. Then, in addition to her gallery show, Muholi also showed her photos in public places around the city, including a billboard above a Walgreens drugstore in Times Square. “The gallery is business,” she said of showing work in a context that helps her finance other activist work in less transactional realms.
At the gallery, Muholi’s work seemed flush with a sense of self-awareness. In photographs from a series titled “Somnyama Ngonyama” (“Hail the Dark Lioness” in Zulu), the artist made her skin appear darker, she said, via a digital post-production process. By emphasizing her complexion, the work forced the viewer to confront stereotypes related to race and gender that often obscure real-life struggles.
Then, using props related to her own life (such as a wool blanket from a police cell and wooden laundry pegs), other works subtly communicated particular experiences and memories. Kodwa, for instance, featured Muholi donning a long white wig that recalls a similar one worn in the past by members of the Dutch court system. The wig in the picture was made in Amsterdam three weeks after a member of Muholi’s collective was pushed down a flight of stairs there by an angry Airbnb host, in an attack that the victim and artist have alleged was racially motivated.
Muholi said that her photographs, of herself and otherwise, are ways of empathizing with other LGBTQI+ peopel. “This is to say, ‘I am one of us,’ ” she stated. “I’m not just taking photos for fine arts—I’m producing content that speaks to South African visual history and a group of people who, simply because of how they express themselves, won’t be counted in history. That includes me, so I’m working on content that’s produced by us for us about us—not dependent on other so-called experts.”