Hail the Dark Lioness – the title of Zanele Muholi’s recent body of photographs, or “Somnyama Ngonyama” in its original isiZulu translation, fully captures the vivacity, daring and pride that underpins the artist’s work.
In a series of arresting images, Muholi – whose pronouns are they/them/theirs – asserts the beauty of Black skin through photographs with heightened contrast. Muholi employs classic conventions of self-portraiture while playfully adopting different poses and manipulating various props.
Newspapers, plastic bags, clothing pegs, rubber gloves, blankets, hoses and other everyday materials are transformed into politically loaded objects, challenging viewers to reflect on desire, beauty and representations of the Black body.
Muholi was born in Durban in 1972, at the height of apartheid. The 1990s in South Africa were marked by major social and political change, including the end of apartheid in 1994 and, in 1996, the outlawing of discrimination based on sexual orientation, making the nation the first in the world to introduce such legislation.
Despite this seemingly progressive constitution, the reality in South Africa is too often a life of discrimination and violence for Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual people, alongside others of varying sexual orientations and gender identities that exist around the world.
Muholi came to prominence in the early 2000s with their tender photographs of South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ people. They describe themself as a visual activist, a person who deals with culture in a way that confronts a number of issues.
Tate Modern’s mid-career survey of Muholi’s work brings together more than 300 photographs and videos in a chronological presentation. The beginning of the exhibition is harrowing – Muholi’s first body of work, Only Half the Picture, documents survivors of hate crime.
Aftermath (2004) intimately and respectfully presents the lower body of a person dressed only in their underwear. A long, wide scar runs down the right upper thigh, the title alluding to a traumatic incident that led to the scarring.
A vitrine in the middle of the room attests to Muholi’s commitment to social justice and activism. Pamphlets on “corrective rape” and other forms of hate crime, some of which the visual artist wrote about in the early 2000s, shed light on the violence committed against LGBQTIA+ bodies in the perpetrator’s attempt to uphold heterosexuality as the default sexual orientation.
Muholi manages to sensitively extend the narrative beyond trauma and injustice by peppering the images of pain with photographs of couples laughing and embracing.
The photographs that follow under the banner of “Brave Beauties” speak of resistance, empowerment and celebration. Trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary beauty pageant contestants defy the notion of beauty in white heteronormative cultures.
Role of the church
Another series of photographs, Queering Public Space, triumphantly depicts LGBTQIA+ communities reclaiming public spaces they are sometimes denied. Works from different series overlap as a result of the redesign of the exhibition to ensure compliance with coronavirus guidelines. The new one-way route allows for an open space that gives the people photographed a presence, merging the fragments of their stories into one strong, commanding voice.
Room five, titled Collectivity, shows photographs made with Muholi’s large network of collaborators, many of whom are part of their Inkanyiso collective, which means “light” in isiZulu, which is Muholi’s mother tongue and one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
The images are split alongside two walls. Private moments in marriages and funerals fill one of them. Images of gleeful gay couples sit alongside those of sombre funerals in cities and townships. Both types of ceremony are connected, surprisingly, by the pastors from churches founded for or by LGBTQIA+ people in South Africa. Spirituality and the church, something not regularly associated with queer life, recurs in the stories told here.
The other wall focuses on pride and protest. Gender-based violence, a global issue that has been reflected in movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, is brought to the fore in these. Muholi captures the palpable feelings of anger and exhaustion in conjunction with a sense of unity and purpose.
Challenging status quo
Muholi founded Inkanyiso in 2009 with a mission to “produce, educate and disseminate information to many audiences, especially those who are marginalised or sensationalised by the mainstream media”. They collectively resist the erasure of their experiences in the media and world-renowned arts institutions.
Muholi’s work places queer lives at the heart of museums and galleries. Tate Modern’s exhibition illuminates the complexity and fluidity of gender and sexuality. Terms such as transmisogynoir, pinkwashing and homonationalism, which may not be familiar to visitors, are explained clearly in a glossary of terms (see box) provided at different points throughout the exhibition and in the guide. A timeline highlights the contexts in which Muholi’s work remains deeply entrenched.
Focus on: Glossary of terms
Some useful terms taken from Tate’s glossary compiled especially for this exhibition, published online here.
Used to describe someone whose gender identity matches the sex and gender they were assigned at birth.
A socio-political system that, predicated on the gender binary, upholds heterosexuality as the norm or default sexual orientation. Heteronormativity encompasses a belief that people fall into distinct and “complementary” genders (men and women) with natural roles in life. It assumes that sexual, romantic and marital relations are most fitting between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman, positioning all other sexual orientations as “deviations”.
A form of advocacy that frames LGBTQIA+ rights in nationalistic terms that privilege North American and European expressions over those of the Middle East and the global south, particularly Africa. Homonationalism sees the conceptual realignment of LGBTQIA+ activism to fit the goals and ideologies of both neoliberalism and the far right to justify racist, classist, Islamophobic and xenophobic perspectives. This framing is based on prejudices that migrant people are supposedly homophobic, and that western society is egalitarian.
A term with multiple meanings, but it commonly refers to the appropriation of the LGBTQIA+ movement to promote a corporate or political agenda. The term is used to describe the practices of entities who market themselves as gay-friendly to gain favour with progressives, while masking practices that are violent and undemocratic.
A term that characterises the marginalisation of black trans women and transfeminine people, and captures the intersection of transphobia, racism and misogyny. It is used to denote the fact that Black trans women experience a racialised form of misogyny that is compounded by transphobia.
Museums are increasingly being called on to challenge the status quo and respond to their audiences. Tate has made a step forward in ensuring the visibility and empowered representation of underrepresented communities. Black queer lives are envisioned beyond victimhood or as a deviance to be corrected. The images, stories and testimonies Muholi collects are both archive and art. Future generations will no doubt refer to these expressions of existence and resistance.
Chiedza Mhondoro is an art writer, curator and postgraduate student in 18th-century British art