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At SFMOMA, Zanele Muholi Documents South African Queer Life with Intense Feeling

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A black-and-white diptych of portraits of a South African woman with an elaborate updo of locs looking at herself, and then the viewer, in the mirror.
Zanele Muholi, 'Zazi I & II,' Boston, 2019. (Bader + Simon Collection; © Zanele Muholi)

Walking through the initial galleries of the SFMOMA’s stunning new exhibit by queer South African photographer Zanele Muholi, Eye Me, one immediately notices Muholi’s capacity to wring emotions from their subjects’ hands.

There’s care implicit in how the subject of “ID Crisis” handles the bandage binding their breasts. The hands grasping before the subject’s genitals in “Aftermath” suggest fearfulness and self-protection — appropriate for an image built around a large upper thigh scar that was the result of a hate crime. And the hands in a series called “Brave Beauties” draw on the coquettish postures of fashion photography to stylize and dignify their trans women subjects.

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The way Muholi brings out personality and feeling through gestures speaks to the photographer’s gift for conveying emotional complexity. For 20 years, Muholi has practiced what they refer to as “visual activism” by exhaustively documenting queer Black life and culture in their native South Africa. They are known for developing lengthy relationships with their subjects — often photographing individuals again and again through their lives — and for working to empower subjects both during photo shoots and afterwards.

Quotes from the artist scattered throughout Eye Me speak to Muholi’s aspirations to create a bounty of images for the queer community’s benefit: “This work is done to ensure that the next generation will be able to draw on a diverse, and queer, archive of images.”

A black-and-white photo of hands with hospital bracelets over plaied
Zanele Muholi, ‘Hate Crimes Survivor I,’ from the series ‘Only Half the Picture,’ 2004. (Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York; © Zanele Muholi)

Eye Me is arranged in sections to cover five of the eight major photo series that Muholi has created to date. These images often tie to themes of coercion and violence against LGBTQ+ individuals — either centering the lives of survivors of sexual assault and hate crimes, or showing the ways queer and trans people experience joy and love in spite of efforts to deny them both. Although Muholi does photograph men, they focus mostly on women and femmes, and Eye Me wafts with the fragrances of a multi-layered femininity, be it a lover’s protective, warning stare, two naked women in joking play or partners standing in a large bucket bathing themselves together.

Muholi is drawn to patterns made by embracing bodies and entwined limbs. Their portrait of queer couple Musa Ngubane and Mabongi Ndlovu shows a hug in which hands and arms seem almost preternaturally connected. The shot of Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta bent over, bathing together, makes the pair’s backs look as though they are merging together into one.

This sense of cohesion makes these images feel so intimate, emotionally raw and powerful. Eye Me can at times be an overwhelming experience for the intensity and quantity of emotions that permeate from virtually every shot in the show.

A black-and-white self-portrait of the artist with elaborate fabric framing their face.
Zanele Muholi, ‘Somnyama Ngonyama II,’ Oslo, 2015. (Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York; © Zanele Muholi)

The largest gallery in Eye Me is reserved for work from Muholi’s magisterial series “Somnyama Ngonyama,” in which they took 365 self-portraits as a vast array of alter egos in locations around the world, from Kyoto to Charlottesville to Nuoro, Italy. Striking in their intricacy (see the dozens of combs carefully arrayed in Muholi’s hair for “Qiniso”) as well as provocative (for “Faniswa,” Muholi painted a uterus on their shoulder), the photographs show the artist often adopting postures of coiled power and great intensity.

For the exhibit, SFMOMA reproduced several of the images from this series to mural size, and the effect is electrifying. In a piece like “Manzi I,” the larger size gives audiences the chance to fully appreciate Muholi’s intricate interplay of textures and masterful arrangement of tones, and their facial expression of wariness, fatigue and resistance hits all the harder.

No matter how abstract or timeless it aspires to be, all art is created and viewed within a cultural context. It feels complicated to experience Eye Me in San Francisco — a part of the United States that remains relatively safe while much of the country unleashes a tide of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred. Even though South Africa is among the most progressive African nations when it comes to queer rights — in 1996 it became the first country in the world to put legal protections for LGBTQ+ people into its constitution — violence, poverty and fragility are basic constituents of Muholi’s artistic palette. It is hard not to wonder what everyday life is like for their subjects. Such questions lead inevitably back to thoughts of how Blackness and queerness are increasingly the subject of violence and depredation here in the U.S.

Zanele Muholi, ‘Yaya Mavundla, Parktown, Johannesburg,’ from the series ‘Brave Beauties,’ 2014. (Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York; © Zanele Muholi)

Although Muholi tends to shoot their photos in ways that abstract away the surrounding world, there is still a powerful sense of being granted glimpses into a community in which the hope for safety and dignity resonates. This is in part because Muholi so assiduously manages the signifiers of Blackness and queerness in their photos — for instance, in “Yaya Mavundla I,” a trans woman stands proud and elegant in a bra and miniskirt made from layers and layers of Saran Wrap. The sense of defiance in the face of invalidation and vulnerability is familiar, even as Mavundla’s body feels part of a queerness that hits very differently from what viewers in San Francisco might be accustomed to. This mixture makes Eye Me feel necessary and vital.

Zanele Muholi’s ‘Eye Me’ is on view at SFMOMA through Aug. 11, 2024. 

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