Zanele Muholi queers South African spaces

It’s damn cold out there and November gray, people also have to keep their distance. During these times, the first room of Zanele Muholi’s exhibition in the Gropius Bau is wrapped around like a warm blanket: two women standing in a tub and soaping each other, two or three others cuddling in bed, right at the entrance a couple of men sitting next to each other in trust.

One puts his left hand on the shoulder of the other, whose right in turn rests on the partner’s knee. It is in the hands of Hompi and Charles Januari, LBTQIA * rights activists, who married for the first time in 2002 and held a second ceremony on their fifth anniversary, one year after the Law on Legalization of Civil Partnerships was passed in South Africa . Zanele Muholi’s recording was made after the celebration, it shows her happy, exhausted. A moment of intimacy.

Shaded eyes, triumphant look

It could go on so nicely in the retrospective organized together with London’s Tate Modern, but Muholi – born in 1972 – belongs to the community of black activists and identifies as non-binary, i.e. beyond the categories of female and male. And the first impulse to portray people close to you was not happiness, but the persecution of homosexuals, trans people, and violence experienced daily in a country that was the first in the world to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality with its post-apartheid constitution in 1996, which is still virulent today Orientation forbidden. The reality looks different.

She catches up with the audience in the next room with pictures of lesbian women who have been victims of hate crimes. They get under your skin like that shot of Lungine Dladla, who looks into the camera with shaded eyes but steadfastly.

A rebellion, a defiant triumph – like the whitefly on the collar – against the suffering experienced: a rape, cynically called “corrective rape”, with which lesbians are to be converted to heterosexuality. Dladla was infected with HIV.

Or the pictures of women crossing their hands in front of their laps. There was no protection for them. Next to it hangs a wrinkled piece of paper with the ad: “Rape + Assault” and a stamp from the Suid-Afrikaanse Polisiediens.

Zanele Muholis Porträt “Busi Sigasa, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2006”Photo: Zanele Muholi, with the permission of the artist and from Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

From these experiences, Muholi’s artistic path developed, he went through empowerment and began at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, a photography school originally designed to support black photographers during apartheid. This was followed by studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. Members of the community became Muholi’s motive, which is why participants were named, the drive was the self-image as an activist.

In the hall with the poignant series “Only Half the Picture” there is a showcase with membership cards, pamphlets and magazines. Muholi is one of the founders of several initiatives and reported about a rape trial for the queer journal “Galzette”, the documents were stolen from the apartment and have disappeared to this day.

[Gropius Bau, Niederkirchnerstr. 7, bis 13. 3.; Mi bis Mo 10 – 19 Uhr]

The pictures quickly find their way into the public eye, and the thesis “Visual Sexuality” is already being shown in 2003 in the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Muholi becomes the leading voice of the LBTQIA * community in South Africa and is also known internationally through the invitation to the Documenta in Kassel in 2012, where the most famous series to date can be seen: “Faces and Phases” now form the brilliant conclusion in the Gropius Bau. Three walls of the room are filled with portraits of people Muholi has met over the past 20 years. The ongoing archive now includes over 500 recordings.

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They all look confidently at those entering and are named. It is an act of empowerment. Curator Natasha Ginwala emphasizes the importance it still has in post-colonial South Africa when a black person looks back steadfastly.

As a special homage there is the portrait of Busi Sigasa, who suffered the same fate as Lungile Dladla, as well as a poem by her with the title “Remember when I’m no longer there”. That is exactly the mission of all pictures: to assert a place in society.

There are different strategies for doing this. “We queer the space to gain access,” is one. Here the previously only sporadic color photography breaks completely, “Black Joy” spreads it.

Zanele Muholis Fotografie “ZaVA IV Bordeaux, 2013” (Ausschnitt).Photo: Zanele Muholi, with the permission of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

The shown trans people are not posing anywhere. Muholi placed them on Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg, the seat of the South African Constitutional Court, or on the beach in Durban not far from Muholi’s birthplace Umlazi, which was only allowed to be visited by whites during apartheid and is now a symbol of the desegregation.

The photo wallpaper fills an entire wall with the beaming winners of Miss Gay competitions. Random passers-by look irritated, laughing at this unusual line-up of black beauties in the sand, it doesn’t bother them herself. Muholi also has an appearance here in its own series, with a tight swimsuit or fringed dress, on platform shoes, sometimes with a number, plastic diadem or sash.

The series could have been the preparatory work for “Somnyama Ngonyama” (“Hail the Dark Lioness” in isiZulu, Muholi’s mother tongue), with which Muholi attracted attention at the last Venice Biennale two years ago. Meter-tall, the self-portraits staged in the Corderie jumped at the astonished audience. In the Gropius Bau they are now reproduced smaller in a separate hall and arranged as a tableau or are projected in motion.

Remembering the mother who had a family of eight

In Venice the whole force of black beauties met with unusual accessories such as cleaning sponges or clothespins as supposed crowns. The story behind it can be found in Berlin: With this production, Muholi is reminiscent of his own mother, who worked as an employee in a white household for 40 years to support her family of eight.

In the meantime, Muholi has continued the melancholy and humorous series with other props that have a political charge, such as the pencils that served as an indicator of “racial classification” during apartheid: if the pencil slipped through the strands because they were smooth, the person became registered as “white”. Muholi turns the tables and sticks a dozen in his hair.

With the retrospective of 200 works, the Gropius Bau is impressively continuing its photo program, which is particularly concerned with diversity. Last year, the great show by the Nigerian-British photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi, who lives in Berlin, was also curated by Natasha Ginwala. This time the exhibition house goes one better: an excellent accompanying program with talks, guided tours, films to bring in queer, diasporic life. Other institutions in the city should look around.

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