Milan, Zanele Muholi, African LGBTQIA+ artist and exponent of Visual Activism, on display at Mudec

From March 31 to July 30, 2023, Mudec in Milan is dedicating an exhibition to Zanele Muholi, an LGBTQIA+ artist whose art has helped bring to light the abuse and violence committed in her country, South Africa, and is among the world's leading exponents of Visual Activism.

For the past ten years, South African artist Zanele Muholi (Umlazi, South Africa 1972) has been among the most celebrated contemporary artists, as well as one of the most interesting voices in Visual Activism, but her work coincides in toto with her beliefs, to the point that Muholi likes to call herself an “activist,” even before she feels she is an artist. Her art tirelessly investigates issues such as racism, Eurocentrism, feminism, and sexual politics, is in constant transformation, and her means of expression are sculpture, painting, and the moving image. But it is with photography, and particularly with the series of self-portraits (begun in 2012 and still ongoing) Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail, Black Lioness”) that Muholi receives planetary acclaim, in a crescendo of exhibitions in the world’s most prestigious museums. All celebrated the poignant and magnetic beauty of his works, with opinion movements following his voice and the establishment of his Muholi Art Foundation to promote young black artists.

Now his art is also coming to Italy. Muholi. A Visual Activist is the project, curated by Biba Giacchetti, through which Milan’s Mudec brings to our country a selection of more than 60 images, magnetic shots of social denunciation that range from the very first self-portraits taken to the most recent works, drawn from Muholi’s constantly evolving artistic project. The exhibition, scheduled from March 31 to July 30, 2023, is promoted by the City of Milan-Cultura, produced by 24 ORE Cultura-Gruppo 24 ORE in collaboration with SUDEST57, and features Deloitte Foundation as Institutional Partner.

Muholi is now a prominent ambassador of the LGBTQIA+ community by exposing himself. Each of her images tells a specific story, a reference to personal experiences or a reflection on a broader social and historical context. The artist’s gaze moves, denounces, and disquiets the viewer, while everyday objects, filmed in a highly symbolic manner, are placed in close dialogue with her body, transfiguring it, telling us about ’other’, forcing us to look fixedly into Muholi’s eyes, sustaining her gaze to go beyond the first level of reading the shot. The beauty of the compositions and the absolute talent as an artist are for Muholi only a means of affirming the need to exist, the dignity and respect to which every human being is entitled, in spite of the choice of partner or skin color, and the gender with which he identifies. Its purpose is the removal of barriers, the rethinking of history, the encouragement to be oneself and to use artistic tools such as a camera as weapons to assert oneself, and fight back.

To understand its genesis and observe the constantly evolving flow of Muholi’s voice, one must trace the biography of this fascinating and eclectic character. Zanele Muholi was born in 1972 in South Africa during theapartheid period, shaped by the violence of that regime and the bloody struggles for its abolition. She soon has to confront the further violence reserved for the LGBTQIA+ community, of which she is a member. Moral and physical violence, torture often accompanied by ill treatment and death. For ten years Muholi has been fighting against the concealment of facts and photographically documenting the horrors and murders of innocents, convicted because of their sexual orientation. Muholi’s first series of artistic shots document survivors of hate crimes who lived throughout South Africa and in townships. Under apartheid, in fact, separate townships, or segregated ’residential areas’ were established for black people who were ’evicted’ from places designated as "white only." Here violence of all kinds, including the practice of ’corrective rape,’ was perpetrated against the LGBTQIA+ community. In the 1990s South Africa undertook significant political change. Democracy was established in 1994 with the abolition of apartheid, followed by a new constitution in 1996, the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Despite this progress, the black LGBTQIA+ community still remains a major target of the most brutal violence in South Africa.

2012 is a particularly painful year in Muholi’s life and artistic journey. His documentary struggle comes to an abrupt end with an intimidating theft of all his unpublished files. Muholi experiences unspeakable heartbreak that, combined with the memory of all the pain he has documented, leads the artist almost to cease to exist.

It is at this moment that Muholi reacts, deciding that his personal struggle must continue, but in other terms. She turns the camera toward herself rather than toward others, thus deciding to expose herself personally. She renounces her own gender identity in order to represent a collective identity that gives voice to the black homosexual community through photography, and particularly throughself-portraiture. The camera thus becomes for Muholi a weapon of denunciation and simultaneously of salvation. Thus was born in 2012 the art project Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (“Hail Black Lioness”), the series of photographic shots that Mudec decided to host in this Italian exhibition, which also became an award-winning volume; a second volume is currently being published. Since then, Muholi has consistently produced a series of powerful self-portraits that bewitch audiences across the board. There is an underlying obsessiveness in Muholi’s art, dictated by the power of his artistic and activist message that shines through in the absolute seriality of his self-portraits, and by his choice of photographic technique, in which the preparation for the shot-which is totally non-post-produced-is already artistic performance.

Muholi chooses each time with meticulous and constant care the setting and the light, prepares the subject for the shot in a rigorous and obsessive way, working on black-white color contrasts, laying bare her own body. And finally, the ’context’ of the self-portrait: Muholi sets the scene with the surreal and metaphorical use of simple everyday objects. Headdresses made of money, necklaces made from light cables, clothespins on her head and crowns made of tires, pliers and various cords interpreted as turbans and scarves are always used and worn on her body in strikingly beautiful poses that often recall, at first superficial glance, the fashion style of certain glossy fashion covers. Precisely, the gaze, a fundamental vehicle of an ’other’ message, an act of denunciation. Her eyes often look straight into the camera. Through a familiar yet distorted image, Muholi invites the audience to go beyond that hypnotic gaze, to go beyond the first level of reading the self-portrait, to reflect, through the “blackness” of her body, on collective black identity, with an effect that surprises for the evocative power of the message.

Her shots engage in an uninterrupted conversation with the world to denounce its abuse, violence, and injustice at every possible level. A never-ending discourse about one’s emotions, about the injustice to be corrected, about the education to be offered to new generations so that things can change, as in the shot Ntozakhe II (Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016), where Muholi’s gaze is turned forward, beyond, toward a future of hope and freedom. The special selection of more than 60 black-and-white self-portraits chosen especially for Mudec by curator Biba Giacchetti together with Muholi convey indelible messages in an exhibition context-that of the Museum of Cultures-that responds in full coherence to the South African artist’s vision of values. Muholi, in fact, explores and gives voice to black Africa and the dramas of the last, the marginalized, and through her art she brings her message to the attention of a West that is often unaware of gender-based violence, which is still relevant today, just as Mudec does every day through its research, collection and protection of the expressions of material and immaterial culture of non-European populations and the Global South. Muholi recounts ancestral African traditions that return in his shots, a cultural identity that through his lens becomes a powerful weapon against racial and gender hatred, a message of hope and inclusion to be given to humanity; exactly the message that Mudec conveys through its constant daily activity. Also presented in the exhibition is a special selection of works from the artist’s project-in-progress, along with a site-specific installation created by Muholi specifically for Mudec, unique and exclusive, which moves away from the iconic forms of representation that have characterized her project of self-portraits, but which merges and complements into a reflection on the ways in which interiority, tenderness and self-expression can be radical and unifying acts. A different way of declining his visual activism.

Vulnerability, passion, and intimate memories are articulated in the staging of a bed, an element to which Muholi has often brought her reflection. Emblem of rest, of encounter, but equally frequent theater of domestic violence. The bed conceived for Mudec is dedicated to his most intimate and private sphere in the narration of an embrace between the artist and his missing companion, reproduced in an image that will cover its entire surface.

“With this exclusive installation,” comments exhibition curator Biba Giacchetti, “Muholi wants to communicate how rest, the need for surrender to the other, are universal components of human nature and transcend the logics of race gender and sexuality.”

To the existential and autobiographical work that began with Somnyama Ngonyama, today Muholi’s message of denunciation joins the gene of hope, of a path to positivity, with the thought that in the face of so much pain, the celebration of life, in all its aspects, is essential. Muholi began over time and is still working on a second major body of images, Faces and Phases, in which she has returned to portraying members of her LGBTQIA+ community, no longer as victims but as full protagonists of their existence, their talent, their strength and beauty. A collection that has created a strong sense of belonging in the community.

It is moreover of these last months the artist’s decision to lose even his first name (Zanele) while keeping only his last name, and to continue on his personal path of self-definition that passes from the renunciation first of the gender and then of the first name that would still have continued to identify a singular person, coming to fully self-define himself only through the use of the pronoun “they.” A choice that this exhibition decided to fully share in the use of the most consonant language possible.

The exhibition opens Mondays from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 9:30 to 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Saturdays from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tickets: full 12 euros, reduced 10 euros. For information visit the Mudec website.

Image: Zanele Muholi, Julile I (Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016).

Milan, Zanele Muholi, African LGBTQIA+ artist and exponent of Visual Activism, on display at Mudec
Milan, Zanele Muholi, African LGBTQIA+ artist and exponent of Visual Activism, on display at Mudec

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