Review

Zanele Muholi, Tate Modern, review: images both ground-breaking and thrillingly real

4/5

This riveting show by the South African photographer tells the stories of people traditionally marginalised by their ethnicity and sexuality

Julie I, Parktown, Johannesburg (2016) by Zanele Muholi
Julie I, Parktown, Johannesburg (2016) by Zanele Muholi Credit: Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

Consider how crushing it would be to look at the art, films and TV around you, and see not a single person whose story echoes your own, on whose experience you might draw.

Zanele Muholi, though, wasn’t crushed. Instead, the South African “visual activist”, whose photographs are now on display at Tate Modern, met the omission eyeball to eyeball, then set out to correct it.

Since 2003, Muholi, who is 48 and uses the pronoun “they”, has worked hard to create a tangible history describing the lives of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex communities in South Africa, of which Muholi themself is part. They were greatly inspired by the no-holds-barred photography of Nan Goldin, who turned her lens on her circle of drug-taking, drag-wearing friends in Eighties New York.

Faces and bodies haunt this show, acknowledging the troubled relationship that South Africa has historically had with the depiction of its people. (It was almost always the settler elite photographing a colonised subject.) That Muholi is not an outsider is therefore crucial, as is their insistence on the term “participant” rather than “subject”, and that each photograph should be collaborative: the upshot of a sustained relationship or, at the very least, repeated meetings.

We see the outcome of that in the very first room: a trio of pictures titled ZaVa I, III and IV(2013), which show Muholi with some of their “collaborators”. Two were taken with vaseline smeared over the lens, making the figures behind only partly visible, at the centre of a beautiful foggy swirl. The third features two women wrapped jointly in a crisp, Madonna-like cowl, and is photographed so attentively that one notices gooseflesh prickling in an unseen breeze.

Busi Sigasa, Braamfontein, Johannesburg (2006), by Zanele Muholi Credit: Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

It’s not all so comely. A few feet away, three other pictures display evidence of the hate crimes that are a brutal reality for queer South Africans. Freedom of sexual orientation may be legally guaranteed under the Rainbow Nation’s progressive constitution but homophobic attacks, murders and “corrective” rape remain commonplace. It’s hard to call whether it’s the six-inch scar, or the indifferent, half-baked biro jottings of a Soweto policeman for his “report” of a serious assault, that’s more awful.

What makes one picture more alluring or memorable than another is often down to a thing that nobody sees but you. Even so, I defy anyone not to be stirred by Muholi’s portrait series Faces and Phases (2006-ongoing) which, at several hundred pictures strong, near covers one of the Blavatnik building’s most cavernous rooms.

Potent subject matter aside (and the laying down of a visual library of queerness for future generations feels currently very potent) Faces and Phases establishes beyond doubt that Muholi is an extraordinarily good photographer. Depth, tonal range – it is all masterfully done. To look into each pair of eyes is to feel as if your own head has been temporarily turned transparent; the reel of your thoughts exposed for all to see. 

Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007) by Zanele Muholi  Credit: Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York © Zanele Muholi

The same is true for Somnyama Ngonyama (2012-ongoing), though here the faces are all Muholi in dozens of guises and roles. Some of these self portraits (one sold for $35,000 dollars a few weeks ago) plunder early South African photography for “native” props such as beads and animal skins. Others make use of the symbolic value of everyday objects such as scouring pads and combs to refer to the Black labour force or the tests employed by officials during the apartheid era to determine ethnic origin.

There is a riveting urgency to this exhibition and, dare one say it, an excitement, because Muholi is breaking ground like no other. I left with a head crammed full of images and stories, and every last one both new and thrillingly real.

Until June 6. Details: 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk