Zanele Muholi’s brave project Faces and phases

Zanele Muholi - Faces and Phases 2007–2013
Zanele Muholi – Faces and Phases, 2007–2013

Who is Zanele Muholi ?

Zanele Muholi was born on 19 July 1972 in the South African city of Durban. Muholi is a self-proclaimed visual activist rather than an artist. She focuses on increasing the visibility of black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersexual persons. Muholi researches and documents the stories of hate crimes against the LGBTQI community. She hopes to bring the realities of the assault “corrective rape1,” and HIV/AIDS to the attention of the masses.

In 2003, she completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. In 2004, she held a first-ever solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto. Her thesis mapped the visual documentary of black lesbian identity and politics in South Africa post-Apartheid.

Faces and Phases

In 2006, Muholi started the series Faces and Phases, which is still ongoing. The series is meant to mock the “art-in-service-to-science” concept etched in the colonial images. Faces and Phases has more than 200 portraits of the lesbian community in South Africa.

Zanele Muholi - Installation view, Faces and Phases, Wentrup, Berlin, 2014
Zanele Muholi – Installation view, Faces and Phases, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, 2014
Background

Growing up, Muholi lived in a society that was intolerant of LGBTI, despite later in 2006, drafting a constitution that overtly prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexuality in South Africa. Even after the Civil Union Act2 was passed, legalizing same-sex marriages as well as civil partnerships, Muholi still believes “hostility toward ‘difference’ has barely slackened, and crimes against gays, and women, have increased.” According to statistics3, once in every two women in South Africa can expect to be raped at least once in her lifetime, and it is such attacks and discriminations that have been a motivation behind Muholi’s Faces and Phases.

Inspiration

In the 18th century, botany pictures show several plants plucked from their natural habitat, thus erasing any cultural or social context. This practice highlights the Western discovery of an object and not acknowledging its long-lasting existence.

Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) - Plantae et papiliones rariores, produced between 1748-1759, color illustration, 54 cm
Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) – Plantae et papiliones rariores, produced between 1748-1759, color illustration, 54 cm, photo: aucklandmuseum.com

In this project, Muholi uses this history and likens it to depicting the LGBTI community in South Africa. While there was a drastic increase in the national representation of black queer individuals, the artist felt that it is still an erasure of crucial context. These individuals are depicted in the same way as the botanical imageries. There is an upsurge in visibility in Western consumption, but no focus is accorded to the misery and systematic subjugation these individuals face in post-apartheid in South Africa.

Why are the captions important?

Muholi challenges this narrative with Faces and Phases by delivering names, dates, locations, and representing the characters within a public domain. Without captions, the images could fall under the regularized gaze of Western culture.

She says:

“Collectively, the portraits are at once a visual statement and an archive, marking, mapping and preserving an often invisible community for posterity.”

Zanele Muholi - Installation view, Faces and Phases, Stevenson Johannesburg, 2016
Zanele Muholi – Installation view, Faces and Phases, Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg, 2016
Personal attacks

The photographer herself has become a victim of a targeted attack. Her house, which she lives with her partner, was broken into by goons, and more than twenty hard drives stolen, effectively deleting the last five years or so of worth that she has been tirelessly building.

She was quoted by the New Yorker:

I am still traumatized by the attack. It is hard to fall asleep in this place, which is now a crime scene, as I dealt with many crime scenes before.

But Muholi is not deterred by all these attacks:

This work needs to be shown, people need to be educated, people need to feel that there are possibilities. I always think to myself, if you don’t see your community, you have to create it. I can’t be dependent on other people to do it for use. We cannot be denied existence. This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.

Zanele Muholi - Installation view, Faces and Phases, Stevenson Johannesburg, 2016
Zanele Muholi – Installation view, Faces and Phases, Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg, 2016
From local to global

The first portrait in Faces and Phases was of Busi Sigara, which was captured at Constitution Hill4 in Johannesburg. This is also a location where many protestors who fought against apartheid were locked up.

Since that first portrait, Muholi has managed to capture more than 500 other characters in different areas of South Africa, in the neighboring African countries, and, in some instances, beyond the continent in countries such as Sweden, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Her activism has crossed the borders and become a global campaign. Muholi was invited to her former school in Toronto, Canada, to join them on their international tours.

Starting with the Chicago Gay Games held in 2006, spanning across other sports, pride parades, numerous exhibitions, photography workshops, performances, residencies, film festivals, award ceremonies, as well as other cultural events in various parts Mexico, Canada, United States, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Lesotho, France, Benin, Uganda, and Botswana.

This year (2019), Faces and Phases holds a reflective stance to acknowledge some of the milestones achieved by the series since its inception while honoring the long road still lies ahead before full freedom may be realized, including complete elimination of hate crimes against members of the LGBTQIA communities.

Zanele Muholi - Installation view, Faces and Phases, Stevenson Johannesburg, 2016
Zanele Muholi – Installation view, Faces and Phases, Stevenson Gallery, Johannesburg, 2016
Video: Zanele Muholi speaks about her work

11 min 23 sec
Analysis

Susan Kart of Grove Art Online believes that Faces and Phases documents victims of sexual assault and hate crimes; the wedding images share moments of victory, acceptance, and joy for LGBTI families.

Faces and Phases is rooted in advocacy and social justice, and Muholi sees herself as not just an artist but an activist as well. Through this series, she tries to present positive portraits of individuals usually confronted by society’s assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices based on race, sexuality, and identity.

The subjects in Faces and Phases look straight at the lens of the camera and the viewer, conveying the message of defiance, openness, being both shy and proud.

Faces and Phases also encourages the inclusion of members from LGBTQIA communities in academic, economic, social, and other spheres of society. Speaking about the strides so far, Muholi said:

The journey has been long and hard.

She also paid tribute to each of her participants in the series. Muholi states,

This is not art; this is life. Each and every photograph is someone’s biography.

Zanele Muholi - Installation view, Isibonelo:Evidence, 2015, Brooklyn Museum
Zanele Muholi – Installation view, Isibonelo/Evidence, 2015, Brooklyn Museum, photo: Jonathan Dorado

Photos

Zanele Muholi - Akhona Hentili, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Akhona Hentili, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Katiso Kgope, Daveyton, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi – Katiso Kgope, Daveyton, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi - Dee Mashoko, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Dee Mashoko, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Debora Dlamini, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Debora Dlamini, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Collen Mfazwe, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Collen Mfazwe, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Charmain Carrol, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2013
Zanele Muholi – Charmain Carrol, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2013
Zanele Muholi - Bongiwe 'Twana' Kunene, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Bongiwe ‘Twana’ Kunene, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Boitumelo Mimie Sepotokele, White City, Soweto, Johannesburg, 2013
Zanele Muholi – Boitumelo Mimie Sepotokele, White City, Soweto, Johannesburg, 2013
Zanele Muholi - Babalwa Nani, Cape Town Station, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Babalwa Nani, Cape Town Station, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Ayanda Mqakayi, Nyanga East, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Ayanda Mqakayi, Nyanga East, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Audrey Mary, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Audrey Mary, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Anele 'Anza' Khaba, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Anele ‘Anza’ Khaba, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Amanda Mahlaba, Mt. Moriah, Edgecome, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Amanda Mahlaba, Mt. Moriah, Edgecome, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Kebarileng Sebetoane, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Kebarileng Sebetoane, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Lynette Mokhooa, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Lynette Mokhooa, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Lungile Cleo Dladla, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Lungile Cleo Dladla, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Lumka Stemela, Nyanga East, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Lumka Stemela, Nyanga East, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Lithakazi Nomngcongo, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Lithakazi Nomngcongo, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Linda Myataza, NY147 Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Linda Myataza, NY147 Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Lesego Thwale, Constitution Hill, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Lesego Thwale, Constitution Hill, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Lesedi Modise Mafikeng, North West, 2010
Zanele Muholi – Lesedi Modise Mafikeng, North West, 2010
Zanele Muholi - Lebo Leptie Phume, Daveyton, Johannesburg, 2013
Zanele Muholi – Lebo Leptie Phume, Daveyton, Johannesburg, 2013
Zanele Muholi - Kirro Nomathemba Madikane, Parktown Johannesburg 2013
Zanele Muholi – Kirro Nomathemba Madikane, Parktown Johannesburg 2013
Zanele Muholi - Khumo Pulumo, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi – Khumo Pulumo, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi - Kekeletso Khena, Green Market Square, Cape Town, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Kekeletso Khena, Green Market Square, Cape Town, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Mayita Tamangani, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Mayita Tamangani, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Siya Kolela, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Siya Kolela, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Samkelo Makhathini, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Samkelo Makhathini, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Refiloe Pitso, Daveyton Johannesburg, 2014
Zanele Muholi – Refiloe Pitso, Daveyton Johannesburg, 2014
Zanele Muholi - Phila Mbanjwa, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Phila Mbanjwa, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Pearl Mali, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Pearl Mali, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Pam Dlungwana Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Pam Dlungwana Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Ntobza Mkhwanazi, BB Section, Umlazi Township, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Ntobza Mkhwanazi, BB Section, Umlazi Township, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Nhlanhla Langa, KwaZulu Natal, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Nhlanhla Langa, KwaZulu Natal, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Mpumi Moeti, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Mpumi Moeti, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Millicent Gaika, Guglethu, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Millicent Gaika, Guglethu, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Mbali Pearl Zulu, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg, 2016
Zanele Muholi – Mbali Pearl Zulu, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg, 2016
Zanele Muholi - Sizile Rongo-Nkosi, Glenwood, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Sizile Rongo-Nkosi, Glenwood, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Zimaseka 'Zim' Salusalu, Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Zimaseka ‘Zim’ Salusalu, Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi, Mbala Zulu, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg, 2010, 2010, printed 2014
Zanele Muholi – Mbala Zulu, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg, 2010, 2010, printed 2014
Zanele Muholi - Zana Nyilenda, Los Angeles, 2013
Zanele Muholi – Zana Nyilenda, Los Angeles, 2013
Zanele Muholi - Yaya Mavundla II, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi – Yaya Mavundla II, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi - Yaya Mavundla I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi – Yaya Mavundla I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2017
Zanele Muholi - Xana Nyilenda, Newtown, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Xana Nyilenda, Newtown, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Vuyelwa Makubetse, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Vuyelwa Makubetse, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi - TK Thembi Khumalo, BB Section Umlazi Township, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi – TK Thembi Khumalo, BB Section Umlazi Township, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi - Tinashe Wakapila, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi – Tinashe Wakapila, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011
Zanele Muholi - Sizile Rongo-Nkosi, Glenwood, Durban, 2012
Zanele Muholi – Sizile Rongo-Nkosi, Glenwood, Durban, 2012
Related readings
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corrective_rape#South_Africa
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Union_Act,_2006
  3. https://citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/crime/2178462/factsheet-south-africas-crime-statistics-for-2018-19/
  4. https://www.constitutionhill.org.za/pages/history

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