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An ‘indomitable sense of self’: The unshakable photography of Zanele Muholi

Posted on 20 Jan 2022

When faced with the entire history of an artistic practice, where does one begin? Here, Phillip Prodger, author of ‘Face Time: A History of the Photographic Portrait’, shares his experience of meeting Zanele Muholi, whose fierce, magnetic work he knew must be included in the book.

Courtesy of Stevenson, Amsterdam/Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancy Richardson, New York/© Zanele Muholi. Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016.

Face Time: A History of Photographic Portraiture is a book about portrait photography and its makers. But it is also about identity – who we are in our own minds, how we want to be seen, and how others see us. Often, when we ask ourselves who we are, we turn to photography for answers. Even when we don’t consciously go looking, we sometimes find the answers waiting for us in photographs.

In 2009, Zanele Muholi was named a visiting artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time, I was still a relatively new curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, just fifteen miles or so down the road. Based in South Africa, Zanele was not yet well known, but had already gained a strong following in the curatorial community, and I was eager we should meet. So I invited Zanele to visit me at the museum, and they graciously accepted.

When Zanele arrived, I invited them into my office for a chat. I went right in, but they stopped short on the threshold. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. “I don’t think I’m in the right place,’ they said, clearly uncomfortable with the surroundings. I told Zanele I didn’t understand. ‘I am a proud black African lesbian woman,’ they bristled, ‘and that is what my art is about. That is not going to change. I should go.’ Surprised, but utterly swept away by the wonderful person in front of me, I smiled, dumbstruck. ‘Come in! Come in!’ I managed. ‘You are at home here!’

Zanele and I went on to have a wonderful afternoon, I thought. We talked about their work, and toured the museum. We ended up having lunch in the local Indian restaurant. Zanele and I have not kept in touch, sadly, although I have watched with great excitement as they have risen to superstardom. Since our meeting, their work has become more focussed, and their craft extraordinarily refined. Yet their work still has the same magnetic pull, and they are just as fierce and compelling as ever.

When writing Face Time, Zanele was one of the first artists I thought of. The biggest challenge was choosing the right work to illustrate in the book. In the end I settled on one of the most famous – ‘Ntozakhe II, Parktown’, 2016, which featured in the recent Tate Modern retrospective. I do not speak Xhosa, but Ntozakhe is usually translated into English as ‘Things That Belong to Her.’ The picture comes from a series of self-portraits called ‘Hail the Dark Lioness.’

Courtesy of Stevenson, Amsterdam/Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancy Richardson, New York/© Zanele Muholi. Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016.

The picture has been interpreted many ways, from a reflection on queer identity to an homage to the artist’s mother – the crown Zanele wears is made up of the same kind of scrubbing brushes their mother, who was a domestic labourer, once used. At the same time, the resemblance to the Statue of Liberty is unmistakable. But what kind of liberty does it represent? To me, it is a self-made liberty, hewn from indignation, self-belief, and compassion. It is proud, unshakable, and transcendent. It is exactly as I remember Zanele in life. What better to represent portraiture and identity?

Zanele is an artist, photographer and activist. What makes their work so powerful is the ground Zanele has staked for themself and other gender non-conforming individuals – a frankly indomitable sense of self – in the face of unimaginable resistance. I remember Zanele explaining the great irony of their career to that point was that while they were beginning to achieve some recognition abroad, they were still not embraced by the South African arts community from which they emerged. Worse, Zanele faced anger, hostility, and even violence, as their works were seen to challenge widely held beliefs about gender roles in their country and beyond, upsetting the male-dominated social order. Many gender non-conforming individuals in Africa face hate crimes – unspeakable transgressions against human rights and self-determination. The extraordinary thing about Zanele’s work is, despite the artist’s uncompromising nature, their work is resolutely positive, and inclusive.

Face Time

A History of the Photographic Portrait Phillip Prodger