It was a lesson to see the same body of work (more or less) in two separate places within such a short space of time. The way each gallery lent itself to the images affected it differently. Rivington Place appears less state-sponsored than the Stedelijk Museum (although both receive funding). As is usual in a high-profile gallery, a hushed and reverential atmosphere prevailed in Amsterdam, despite there being a number people in the building at the time. Rivington Place was empty on weekday lunchtime, but felt less staid, less stark, more contemporary; a beautiful, enticing space. For the duration of the exhibition this is Muholi’s gallery, given over to her entirley. The fact it’s on ground level means you walk straight off the street and into a room filled with her extremely dynamic, floor to ceiling photographs. In Amsterdam you must find your way to her, as she is one of a number of artists being celebrated. Neither situation is better or worse than the other. Each approach has something to be said for it. We observe a powerful statement being made when a woman with Muholi’s background, whose mother was a domestic servant in South-Africa, shares a space with other highly revered, European artists; and when we see her face looking out over a park in Amsterdam, which is surrounded by prestigious art institutions. However, the dedicated and immediate space in London made one feel as it we were being invited to exist with, and perhaps even inside, Muholi’s cast of psychological characters. In Amsterdam Muholi’s face is plastered on a high wall outside the museum, and looks down on all the visitors. In London, her large-scale images look directly back at you on the same level. You are intimately surrounded by 12 or 20 foot photographs. You walk in and are faced with an environment that is every inch about her. If you have any experience of South African history, you cannot fail to appreciate the significance.
Zanele Muholi is black, part of the LGTBQI community, and from South Africa. In an informative and beautiful accompanying newspaper produced by Autograph APB, she says, “My practise as a visual activist looks mainly at resistance, existence as well as insistence. Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on black LGTBQI people making sure we exist in the visual archive. The key question that I take to bed with me is: What is my responsibility as a living being, as a South African citizen reading continually about hate crimes in the mainstream media?” (Muholi, 2017)
Muholi’s images in London are all self portraits, which she makes with the help of her travelling entourage. In Amsterdam we see images of her companions too but I will concentrate on the London exhibition. She dresses up in whatever material and objects are to hand such as bin liners, pegs or wool, although there also are some ready-made objects used for the purpose they were designed, like hats and goggles. She creates improvised ‘costumes’, often consisting of elaborate head dresses, and when you hear she was a hairdresser at the start of her adult life, you can further appreciate the ‘fun’ she is having with these portraits. But it is also a reminder to confront the significance of black hair and how it is a political signifier, rejected and appropriated in various measures by social groups. The images are processed to look extremely contrasty and we are told in the blurb this is deliberate, ‘unashamed’ artistry which enhances the blackness of her skin. In nearly all the images Muholi stares out of the frame, directly at the viewer. I’m not sure the look she has in her images is defiant as such (although we are told it is in the Autograph website). Instead, I wonder if she is merely present, forcefully so perhaps, due to the number and size of images, which in relation to the history of black women in South-Africa (not to mention the rest of the western world) might be read as a defiance. Perhaps it is not her defiance we are seeing since she unapologetically shows us her presence – although, and this is the point, if you were born with a concentration of melanin in your skin, which history has stipulated marks you as an ‘other’, being present has proven and continues to be challenging. Is the defiance instead something we project? Because as Munroe Bergdorf recently tried to explain, a structural reality exists (2017) (one which needs to be owned and addressed by society.) In other words, we see defiance if we on some level, no matter how unconscious, regardless of who we are, believe that a black women with this level of presence is strange, alien, unusual. Indeed, any woman with this level of self possession is potentially immensely challenging within the paradigm in which we exist. In relation to race, lawyer, Catherine Craig explains it in a Guardian Opinion column; “… if you grow up in a racist society, through no fault of your own, some of that racism is bound to stick subconsciously. It’s an unconscious conspiracy in which we are all complicit, unless we fight it.” (2017) For many white people in society, this is an uncomfortable idea to take on board. Therefore the very powerful presence so evident in Muholi’s images are read as defiant only because the society in which they are made makes them so. Take away the imaginary, and what you have is a woman dressed up in a series of photographs just being.
What makes the work so especially profound is that many black women, have been and continue to be, in South Africa and around the world, forced into a paradigm where there is only a type of absence (i.e.not a man) on offer as a space within which to ‘be’ . And this is the same for people whose sexuality veers away from what society continues to insist, despite social advances, is the ‘norm’. Even recently on so-called mainstream TV, in a supposed liberal country, someone was invited to discuss a ‘cure’. However, it is harder for me to talk about the LGTBQI aspect, simply due to experience. I grew up in South-Africa in the 70s, and like Areilla Azoulay explains in The Civil Contract of Photography, I ‘belonged’ to the group of dominators through birth, and ‘enjoy[e]d its relative privileges and against my will [am taking part] and took part in dominating and oppressing” people who were not born to that group. (2014, p37) Hence, Muholi’s images are painful to view even though, at the risk of sounding like I’m saying, “I’m not like that!”, (I am part of this society and well aware of moments when unconscious bias surfaces) I am and have always tried to be more than aware. I was fortunate enough to be born to parents who questioned the South African regime’s worldview, unlike a neighbour’s child who had been brought up to believe the nationalist, Kerk-led reasoning for shocking injustices and violence. My father, a white Jewish comedian, used his act throughout the 70s and early 80s to criticise the National Party in South Africa, although in everyday life he shied away from anything deemed less than liberal. A friend and colleague of my mothers, Roy Christie, editor of a Jo’burg based newspaper wrote of him, “…Alan Field[‘s…] acerbic comments were so blunt and divisive […] I was amazed he was never locked up.” (Kindle 40%, 2017) He was white – is a big part of the reason. I live with the guilt and always have done. Consequently, in both Amsterdam and London I felt deeply affected by Muholi’s images, because I saw how subservient black men and women were forced to be when I was there. To see Muholi’s beautiful images, a testament to her existence, her presence, so lacking in excuses is such a powerful contrast to those memories, and takes me to a place that is difficult to describe using words. It feels extremely relevant nowadays to add a brief description of what I recall about returning to the UK in 1986. I naively thought we were leaving racism and bigotry behind. But some of the things people said to me when I was here during those early years were extraordinary. Agreement and praise for the South-African government from a white London taxi driver. Anti-Semitism over the years from people who didn’t know of my Jewish grandparents. Open homophobia normalised and accepted. And even relatively recently, bare-faced racism from a local osteopath who told me as he treated my pain, I shouldn’t send my children to a highly regarded secondary school since it was a bit ‘dark’ down there. (There was no reason for him to say this. It’s a girls school and we’d established my children are all boys – he just wanted to express his racist views about the school.) Racism like that is easy to see and to condemn. It is the stuff that until recently was hidden which is harder to address. And most difficult is the unconscious racism described by Craig in her column because we white people find it so uncomfortable to own up to.
I would tell anyone and everyone to go and see Muholi’s work. It is extraordinary and profound. She is quoted in the accompanying newspaper, “I’m recalling my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.” (2017)
Ref: (all accessed 13/09/2017)
Azoulay, A. (2014). The civil contract of photography. 1st ed. New York: Zone Books, p.37.
Christie, R. (2012). The Mocking of Apart-Hate ‘Loving and Laughing in the Shadow of Injustice’. Amazon Services, London, p.40%.(Kindle Edition)