Artist and Visual Activist, Zanele Muholi, Gives Agency and Visibility to Black LQBTQIA+ Community in South Africa and Beyond
BOSTON, MA (February 28, 2022) — The powerful images of visual activist Sir Zanele Muholi are on view in a groundbreaking exhibition, Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) through May 8. Muholi, who uses they/them/their pronouns, has photographed the Black gay, lesbian, trans, queer, non-binary and intersex communities of South Africa and beyond for more than two decades. The artist captures intimate expressions of beauty, vulnerability, love, loss, and belonging, while building a visual archive of representation and confronting issues of inequality, social injustice and Black queer visibility.
“Photography for me is always first and foremost a tool of activism, driven by the idea of social change,” says Muholi.
Though apartheid was abolished in 1994, and South Africa outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996, Black LGBTQIA+ people have been and continue to be targets of prejudice, hate crimes, and violence. In their work, Muholi embodies the spirit of “ubuntu,” a Zulu quality that embraces our shared humanity and compassion.
“In addition to creating works of astounding and provocative beauty, Muholi combines art and activism as a form of resistance — using the power of imagery to combat racism, gender discrimination and homophobia,” says Peggy Fogelman, the Gardner’s Norma Jean Calderwood Director.
Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance features works from the artist’s internationally-acclaimed series, Somnyama Ngonyama, translated as “Hail the Dark Lioness” in Zulu. In these stylized black and white self portraits, Muholi assumes a range of archetypes and personas referencing their personal experience and South African heritage. Muholi often incorporates everyday objects to deliver layers of meaning. For instance, paying tribute to their late mother who supported her family as a domestic worker, Muholi utilizes clothes pins to create a crown. Five photographs from this series in the exhibition were taken at the ISGM in 2019, during Muholi’s time as Gardner Artist-in-Residence.
The series Being captures everyday lives of same-sex couples illuminating moments of joy, connection and intimacy between lovers and partners. In Muholi’s Brave Beauties, depicting transgender women and beauty queens, public locations are selected for photo shoots as a reclamation of space.
“Merging art and activism, Muholi guides us to reflect deeply on what unites and divides us as human beings,” says Pieranna Cavalchini, co-curator of the exhibition and Tom and Lisa Blumenthal Curator of Contemporary Art at the ISGM.
Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance debuts — for the first time in a museum — the artist’s paintings and sculpture created during the COVID-19 pandemic. In these vibrant paintings, Muholi transforms themself into a range of personas, real and reimagined. These paintings further Muholi’s continuum of hyper-imaging of self to challenge stereotypes and prejudices rooted in race, class, gender identity and sexual orientation. The exhibition also includes the artist’s first bronze sculpture, a self-portrait bust, which translates the sculptural qualities of Muholi’s photography into 3D.
“The fashioning of agency and visibility Sir Zanele Muholi offers as they shapeshift through photography, sculpture, and painting is an affirmation and reclamation of Blackness and queerness,” says theo tyson, co-curator of the exhibition and Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The exhibition also features poetic responses inspired by Muholi’s artistry penned by Boston Poet Laureate and 2021 ISGM Artist-in-Residence Porsha Olayiwola. Additionally, a large-scale self-portrait from the Somnyama Ngonyama series is displayed as public art on the Museum’s Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façade. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum is offering public programs that explore themes of gender and sexuality, photography, and more. A community project, Future Archive, will convene an intergenerational group of Boston-based creatives to document the intersectionality of Blackness and queerness.
More about Muholi
Muholi’s mission is to “rewrite a Black queer and trans visual history for the world.” Muholi co-founded The Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), the first Black lesbian organization in Johannesburg, in 2002, and operated Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual activist media, from 2006 – 2020. Recent solo exhibitions have taken place at the Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015) and Tate Modern, UK (2020). Muholi is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery (New York) and Stevenson Gallery (Cape Town/Johannesburg). Learn more on the ISGM’s website: https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/being-muholi/gallery-guide
Link to Dropbox images can be found here.
Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance is supported by the Abrams Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Wagner Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation. The Media Partner is WBUR. The Artist-in-Residence program is directed by Pieranna Cavalchini, Tom and Lisa Blumenthal Curator of Contemporary Art, and is supported in part by the Barbara Lee Program Fund. The Museum receives operating support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is supported by the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum • Open Weekends from 10 AM to 5 PM and Weekdays from 11 AM to 5 PM, Thursdays until 9 PM. Closed Tuesdays. • Admission: Adults $20; Seniors $18; Students $13; Free for members, children under 18 • Advance reservations required. Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance is included in general admission. Please see Know Before You Go | Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum prior to your visit • For information 617 566 1401 • www.gardnermuseum.org