It’s day one of the 10th anniversary of Black Portraiture[s] in Paris, France, and I’m reporting not-so-live from the third row in the New York University Paris auditorium. Black Portraiture[s] is the academic conference dedicated to the study of African diaspora art and culture. To my left, an artistic whirlwind of its own making, visual activist Sir Zanele Muholi, is breezing up and down the auditorium steps. They’re a knighted artist yet they move about with the dedicated spirit of an apprentice reporting for their first day on assignment; this is what passion in motion looks like two decades into a career. Armed with a large-lensed camera, Muholi presses their back against the west wall, trying to fit as much of the room and its people into the frame. At no one’s request, Muholi is making less of themselves to create more room for the act of freezing time between shutter speeds. As the pioneering documentarian continues taking action photos, I jokingly muse to myself that back home, in colloquial Zulu, we’d say, “Hayi uMuholi uyashoota ke manje,” loosely translated as, “Wow Muholi is really, really shooting [taking photographs] now.” I sit with the thought a little longer, particularly with the loaded phrase ‘to shoot.’ Shooting points to violence that is most prevalently inflicted by gun. I’m a millennial with a few minutes to spare before the opening of a conference, so I take out my phone and Google: ‘who invented the gun?’
Howstuffworks.com says a bamboo tube that used gunpowder to fire a spear was invented in 10th century China and is regarded by historians as the first gun ever made. Gunpowder was invented unintentionally by Chinese alchemists trying to develop a fountain of youth potion. Its potential uses lay dormant for a century, until constant invasion of the Song Dynasty’s lands by the Mongols called for the weaponising of this accidental and novel invention. The later invention of the camera also came to be a weapon for photographers; to ‘shoot’ for resistance, for justice, for memory, for survival. Who invented the gun? becomes my real-life simile comparatively sizing up a sniper’s deadly delight with Muholi’s silent camera. One shoots to kill, the other shoots to remember.
Shots Fired: Occupying the canon with a Queer Agenda
I’m in Europe at the invitation of Prof Muholi, as the formidable army of queer South Africans they habitually travel with likes to call them. At any given time, Prof travels the world with queer creatives, photographers, journalists, praise singers, medical professionals, sports people and whoever they believe can further the agenda of flooding the canon with an archivable record of queer existence. I’m one of two queer journalists who are part of this contingent that’s travelled to Paris to attend the closing of Muholi’s retrospective at The Maison Européenne de la Photographie (La MEP) and attend Black Portraiture[s]. The retrospective marked a notable moment in the artist’s career with the museum reaching record-setting visitor numbers for LGBTQIA+ works; over 80 000 people bought tickets to view the exhibition. It is made up of photographic works from Muholi’s Faces and Phases series which contains 17 years’ worth of portraits of Black lesbian, transgender and gender-non-conforming participants – there are selections from the transgender-focused Brave Beautiesseries and the prolific self-portraiture series Somnyama Ngonyama. The common trigger that set off the invention of all these bodies of work hinges on memory and visibility.
“I take photographs because I don’t want to be forgotten,” are words Muholi says more than once, sometimes playfully and others quite seriously. I hear these words on my first night in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just west of Paris, at the generously sized loft where we’re all staying. I hear the words again spoken to the academic audience at Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, on day two of the conference. “I’m not here to speak for other people,” they say, “I’m speaking about what I have produced, which is authentic knowledge that’s needed in the canon. There’s a need for us to stress that visual archive that speaks to selves in ways that have never been done in history. I think it’s very important to be remembered.”
Amongst the South African exports on this trip are transgender activist Le Sishi, executive director of Trans Hope Sazi Jali, photographer and activist Charmain Carrol, photographer Lizzy Ziqubu, hairdresser and Faces and Phases participant Bathini Dambuza, journalist Lerato Dumse, director of photography Themba Vilakazi and Muholi’s London-based long-time collaborator and publisher, Renee Mussai. This army of Black and predominantly female/queer voices are the soldiers who wake up every day, whether in Umlazi or Paris, to bear witness on their lived experiences. “It’s important for me to be here because I can speak for myself to express the emotions I was feeling when each portrait was taken; even Muholi who has taken the photograph can’t do that,” says Bathini.
At their trigger-happy best, Muholi and this group demonstrate one of the crucial cogs and secret weapons of this generation; uncensored voices serving on the front lines of history and art making. Each living a life of public and private protest which can sometimes be relentlessly transient and stateless territory, each foraging for new futures that pierce through the multi-hyphenate veil of loaded labels that often divide – labels like Black/female/queer/African.
Reversing ‘the Gaze’ with Somnyama Ngonyama
Muholi delivers their intent to be immortalised with powerful poise through the series Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the dark lioness in isiZulu), that’s been photographed and exhibited all over the globe. “Portraiture is my daily prayer,” Muholi says of the series which is entirely self-realised and photographed with only natural light. “Somnyama Ngonyama was intended to be my daily bread. I carry my camera with me all the time. I try to break away from the notion of modelling, studios, statues, stagnancy and fixation. Modelling is about that freeze, photography is about that freeze – I break away from these conventions,” they say of the liberty of turning the lens on themselves.
There’s another reversal at play here, and I see it first hand when I fly out of Paris to spend 24 manic hours in Milan, Italy. Fellow journalist Lerato Dumse and I have been deployed by Muholi to go and see the exhibition at Museo delle Culture di Milan (Mudec). There, a sprawling single storey building that is dedicated to Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama swallows us whole, much like it’s ravenous namesake. As Muholi’s unwavering gaze follows us and the European locals walking through the dimly lit space, it becomes most evident that this is an artist who understands the art of war. They know when to reduce themselves – like that time at NYU Paris – but most potently they know when to loom large, delivering reverse shots with technical precision in the direction of that sometimes curious but often problematic gaze. It’s this bold return-to-sender energy of heightened blackness, captured with the sensibility of a high-fashion magazine, blown up to large scale and transported around the world to be hung on the very walls that once tried to shut us out, that continues to have eyes all over the globe transfixed on the absurd audacity of Zanele Muholi.
Expanding the Arsenal to life sized proportions
Back home, Muholi’s first solo exhibition with Cape Town-based Southern Guild Gallery ended last month and featured the artist’s largest presentation of new sculpture to date. “This is no longer about me. It is now about every female body that ever existed in my family that never even imagined that these dreams are possible,” says Muholi.
Ever the creative chamber that stays loaded, they’ve now turned the narrative of the brutalised female body on its head. Ernest Mancoba’s sculpture African Madonna – which exploded into the canon in 1929 – is responded to 94 years later in the form of Muholi as a queer Black Madonna. The two-metre-high sculpture titled Umkhuseli (meaning the protector), “confronts the failure of law, religion, and politics to adequately address gender injustice, directly referencing the artist’s Roman Catholic upbringing,” the exhibition statement explains.
All at once the pain and politics of the female body, a prominent theme since 2003 when Muholi had their first solo exhibition, erupts into the poetics of pleasure with bronzes depicting the full anatomy of the clitoris, among other feminine expressions. “At the end of the day, we have bodies and we are vulnerable human beings. How do we educate people so that they start looking at their bodies as their own, rather than as bodies for the other? […] Art becomes the platform in which we can start sharing these narratives,” is their proverbial parting shot.