Review: Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

Review of visual artist Zanele Muholi’s Isibonelo/Evidence exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

When you attend an exhibit by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, you’re confronted with death in its most murderous and violent form. As a black lesbian brought up in a society in which homosexuality was brutally punished, Muholi’s always lived in close proximity to death. She knew it could take her away with the tossing of a stone or swing of an iron rod by overzealously homophobic vigilantes. In Isibonelo/Evidence, we’re introduced to one woman’s intimate exploration of the fraught relationship between death and her community.

As you enter the exhibit, there’s a large free-standing wall imprinted with a colorful photograph of a person holding a passport that belongs to Disebo Gift Makau. The word “deceased” is faintly stamped on the contents page of Makau’s passport. It leaves you feeling unsettled. Makau was a 24-year-old lesbian who was raped and killed in her hometown of Ventersdorp. The men responsible for her death had strangled her neck with wire and shoved a pipe down her throat because they felt she was too loud about her sexuality.

You don’t have to know the details of Makau’s death to be moved by the photo of her passport. Muholi excels at using simple imagery to mourn the loss of black lesbian life. Like the subjects of her work, Muholi grew up in a township where people weren’t tolerant of homosexuality and lesbianism. The open passport bearing the evidence of a death felt like an invitation to acknowledge those victims of homophobic violence.

On the right-hand side of the exhibition is a display of black-and-white portraits part of Muholi’s on-going Faces and Phases series. It consists of 66 photographs of black South African lesbians and transgender people that Muholi has shot throughout the years. The expressions on their faces range from hope, sorrow, indifference and defiance. Muholi’s work is compelling because it reveals the full spectrum of black lesbian and transgender life in South Africa. She also doesn’t afford you any breathers in this exhibition. Muholi is not an artist who’s interested in complacent sympathy and momentary outrage. She wants our undivided attention. She asks us to imagine the terror under which the black South African LGBTQ communities live. She wants us to get a sense of what it’s like to have your existence be a threat to so many people. .

Muholi was born in 1973 when the Apartheid regime was three years away from being rocked by protests and sanctions. Like past South African artists who used their craft to challenge the racist laws of the time, Muholi treats art as a form of activism. The influences in her work can be traced the late photographer Ernest Cole, who’s captured the indignities of everyday life for black South Africans living under Apartheid. His most famous work, House of Bondage, contains black-and-white portraits of young black children crammed into classrooms at segregated schools. It also documents the living conditions of black political prisoners in the early 1960s with Cole getting himself arrested to capture these images.

Both Muholi and Cole treat the personal as political by putting themselves on the line to showcase the lives of the communities they’re invested in. Muholi often shoots her subjects in areas that are deeply homophobic and antagonistic towards those who cover homophobic attacks. When asked whether she fears for her life in the midst of such danger, she dismisses this fear by emphasizing her focus is with the people she’s passionate about photographing.

It’s clear Muholi feels a sense of responsibility towards the black LGBTQ community in South Africa. But sometimes that obligation can overshadow the brilliance of her work. Another free-standing wall contains an image of quotes from survivors of corrective rape (an act where lesbian women are sexually assaulted in order to be cured of any same-sex urges).

Dense rhetoric containing social science jargon features a lot in these messages. The repetitive mention of terms such as “slut shame” and “white supremacist patriarchy” make you question whether these are the actual words of survivors of corrective rape. It seems strange that their first instinct would be to curse intangible social systems rather than the criminals who’ve tried to obliterate them from society. The use of this lofty language distances us from the survivors of these sexual attacks. It turns what they’ve gone through into abstractions spun for political gain.

It’s not to suggest all of the subjects in Muholi’s work wouldn’t use the language employed to explain why these crimes occur. They could be familiar with these terms. But their usage seems to speak more to Muholi’s self-styling as a “visual activist” than the reality faced by the individuals who survive these crimes. We get no sense of a person behind these quotes.. Despite the heavy subject matter, their accounts are devoid of emotional resonance because they’re intended to flaunt Muholi’s political leanings as opposed to focusing on the feelings of the survivors.

Another instance in which Muholi the artist plays second fiddle to her messianic perception of herself is the video display on a small HD TV of her having sex with her partner. While the moving images are blurred so you only see vague silhouettes of their bodies, it’s impossible to understand why Muholi chose to feature this piece in her exhibition. It comes across as a cheap way of being cutting-edge because it’s heaving with pseudo-provocativeness. Muholi doesn’t need to resort to these tactics because being provocative is a trait that comes naturally to her. She’s at her best when she tames her Messiah complex and lets her photography speak for itself.

The final part of the exhibition is an ode to lesbian weddings and funerals. According to Muholi, weddings and funerals exist side by side in the black lesbian and transgender community. There’s an alleyway with lively photographs and live footage from the wedding of lesbian couple Ayanda and Nhlanhla Moremi. It then leads to a dimly lit room containing a bouquet-adorned casket with a portrait of Muholi lying at the bottom. It’s manipulative move on Muholi’s part as she’s not dead nor is the couple whose wedding she’s recorded.

But she uses her own imagined death as a way of informing us how omnipresent death is for black lesbians and transgender people in South Africa. Muholi brings the inevitability of death closer to home by giving it a persona that’s larger than life. By inserting an image of herself in the coffin, Muholi puts death next to the familiar to make us feel its possibility more intensely.

In the language of isiZulu, the word “Isibonelo” means example and the name “Zanele” enough. In her exhibit, Zanele Muholi provides us with enough examples of the violent terror black South African lesbians and transgender people face everyday. She’s committed to documenting the courage and vulnerability of her community. There are times at which her ego gets the better of her work. But for the most part, she’s able to be the voice of her community while showcasing her exceptional talents as a visual provocateur.