South Africa legalized same-sex marriage with the passage of the Civil Union Act in 2006, and it was the first country to abolish discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution. That is small comfort to the South African lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people who continue to be victims of harassment and violence there.
Zanele Muholi began her ongoing “Faces and Phases” series, which forms the centerpiece of this show, titled “Isibonelo/Evidence,” the same year the bill was passed, collaborating with her sitters in acts of self-identification and defiance. In the grid of 60 black-and-white portraits that took over two walls of the show’s first gallery, the subjects gaze straight out at the photographer (and the viewer), claiming membership in a group that is gloriously varied. Muholi calls herself a “visual activist,” but her portraits in this body of work, uniform in size and composition, also demonstrate an engagement with photo history, evoking projects like August Sander’s series “People of the 20th Century” and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies of water towers and industrial architecture.
In the early 2000s, Muholi studied at the Market Photo Workshop in South Africa, founded by the South African photographer David Goldblatt, and her work has appeared in a number of gallery exhibitions, biennials and festivals. This show is her first solo presentation at a major museum, and it gives a sense of the variety of approaches she takes to her work. At the entrance to the exhibition is a large color photograph of two hands holding the open passport of a woman named Disebo “Gift” Makau. The passport is stamped “Deceased,” and the wall text informs us that Makau, a lesbian, was raped and murdered, her body found with a pipe shoved down her throat. A freestanding wall across the room is covered with comments and remembrances that Muholi recorded in her own handwriting on a large chalkboard, describing harassment and incidents of so-called corrective rape.
The mood and palette brighten considerably in the next section of the show, which contains color photographs of same-sex weddings of Muholi’s friends. These pictures of gender-fluid wedding parties and dressed-up celebrants are jubilant, and have the intimacy of snapshots. It’s interesting that while many of the subjects in “Faces and Phases” could be described as androgynous, the couple featured in a number of these small photographs and in a video in the next room embrace conventional dress codes for brides and grooms: one of the women wears a frilly dress, makeup and jewelry; the other dons a suit, a tie and a crisp white shirt. The video shows them and their guests singing and dancing under the bright South African sun, but lest we feel too cheered, this gallery also contains a clear glass coffin decorated with flowers. Inside the coffin is a black-and-white portrait of Muholi herself, in the same style as the “Faces and Phases” portraits that open the show, a piercing reminder of the violent fate of many in her community.