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Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern 3
Mellisa Mbambo, Durban 2018. Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New YorkPhotography Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi on capturing the spirits of Black lesbian women and trans men

The South-African visual activist’s first major UK exhibition is on show at the Tate Modern

In 2006, Zanele Muholi took a photo of Bust Sigasa at the old Women’s Gaol on Constitution hill in Johannesburg. A friend, colleague, poet, and activist, Bust Sigasa was also a survivor of a hate crime – ‘curative rape’. In March 2007, eight months after Muholi had taken her image, Bust Sigasa was dead, age 25. As Muholi was confronted by the realities of loss and pain, Bust Sigasa’s image, her life, and untimely death served as a catalyst for Muholi’s mission to photograph the striking black and white portraits of Black lesbians and trans men in their South African community.

Faces and Phases grew from the first image of Singasa into a full visual project. The series is foundational to Muholi’s unprecedented and flourishing archive of photographs for their community and South Africa. Guided by this particular vision, Muholi’s work has filled the gulf of Black LGQTQI+ representation in South Africa’s visual history. Though decades have passed since the fall of Apartheid, the formation of the South African constitution, and Nelson Mandela’s vision for a rainbow nation, histories had continued to exclude the very existence of Black and queer communties of South Africa.

Resistance and progression are never linear processes – they are inconsistent, spiralling, refracting. Through these bursts of progression and regression, Muholi finds crucial points of reference, revisiting the same people and re-taking their image. Faces and Phases creates a space for Black lesbian women and trans men to develop, thrive, and to live fully in the past, present, and future.

Zanele Muholi: People grow. They change. Your whole way of thinking and frame of reference differs. It is a part of this ever-changing archive, which changes every year. From whatever period of where you are, it might be different. It’s why every moment that comes, every moment changes, every joy, and all that makes you change with time. The space is the actual portrait of a person that is capturing their likeness. The phase is that development and change which includes success, achievement, challenges and all that kind of stuff that makes us doubt. But without making it about negativity, we are making it about positivity. People that speak to the now and tomorrow.

Durban is the location for many of the photos that I have taken for Faces and Phases. The city is very big, like Chicago. It is humid and coastal. I wanted to do away with most of the closeted spaces that these people find themselves in, so we claimed the space and made the pictures for everyone. Everyone has the right to enjoy and claim it. I choose any open space that is good for us to be at – it’s beautiful. It’s a space for the Zulus, specifically. The Zulus of South Africa dominate Durban, and the language is spoken in Zulu. The weather is nice and hot. It is a space of survival of the fittest in every way.

“This series is all about questioning, looking deeply. People’s features, their faces, as the major source of the body. It is a series that allows the person to look back at the camera, the lens, and question the photographer themselves” – Zanele Muholi

Mellisa’s picture was taken last January at the memorial service of another LGBTQI member who had drowned, who we both knew. I took the picture after this remembrance service. Mellisa is wearing a headwrap, paying respect.

It wasn’t like, ‘oh get ready for the picture’, it was just that particular day was important for a lot of us. A lot of my early work with Mellisa was taken in 2003, and I asked Mellisa if we could do a documentation of where we started. When we were in that place, it became a phase of our lives. I speak to the people I photograph, they are never strangers –  I actually was with Mellisa a couple of weeks ago.

People here believe in something, they have their own beliefs. Mellisa, for instance, is a great believer of God, a survivor of hate crime, has been stabbed, and has still survived. People are Christians, people are religious. People go to church and pray with all those who might be with them or against them; people are coming from families of Christians. There are churches that accept people without scaring them or crucifying them. And whether you go to church or not, you can still wear a cross and believe. You can pray by yourself and with yourself, you don’t necessarily need to go to church to do that; people do things differently. People have been through so much and give thanks that they have survived, you know.

This series is all about questioning, looking deeply. People’s features, their faces, as the major source of the body. It is a series that allows the person to look back at the camera, the lens, and question the photographer themselves. You are engaging with me, I am engaging with you, but without the words. You might be saying something at the camera and through the lens, because you are the one who wears the equipment here. Then the other person is also looking. That penetrating look is also something of the person who is photographing. It is that kind of engagement. A way of people speaking, but without saying a word, and there is one thing that is in them. The tool, the camera.

It is about engaging directly with each other. Let us try and look at each other as a pair – this is why I request my participants look straight at the camera. You are looking at me and I’m looking back at you. Why? It is important for people to engage in that way, regardless of their gender expression or sexual orientation. It is a way that we avoid victimhood: the shame, the naming, and the insults that we always endure when people look at you. I think, in this way, it gives the participant the right to be and the right to look back. It is my form of transgressing.

Faces and Phases is on show at the Tate Modern until June 6, 2021