Zanele Muholi’s latest exhibition at Southern Guild is a triumphant celebration of her career.

By Matthew McClure

Visual artist. Activist. Humanitarian. Award-winning photographer. Author. Scholar. These are just some of the accolades attributed to Zanele Muholi, who has exhibited their evocative sculpture and photography across the globe, from Europe to the US and Australia to Canada. From June 15 to August 17, Southern Guild brings Capetonians the rare opportunity to view new work from this brilliant mind and eye, exhibited alongside early pieces that give one a glimpse into the trajectory of Zanele’s career to date.

Zanele Muholi – Thatha konke I, Sheraton Hotel, Brooklyn 2019

Titled ZANELE MUHOLI and occupying the entire gallery space, the exhibition has been prompted by the rise in cases of femicide, corrective rape and violence inflicted upon womxn and LGBTQI+ people across South Africa; human rights issues that have always compelled a sense of activism and urgency in Zanele’s work and outreach programs. They have founded several initiatives and organisations in underprivileged communities across the country that work towards creating safe spaces for womxn and queer people to create, speak and act safely (Inkanyiso, Ikhono LaseNatali and PhotoXP are incubators for black female creativity that have developed a massive following).

Zanele Muholi – Bukhosi II, Parktown 2016

Zanele’s career has spanned almost 20 years. Throughout, they have worked at refusing passivity and foregrounding the visibility of marginalised womxn and queer, black and trans bodies by positioning themselves in front of and behind the camera lens. The female body has biologically, historically and culturally been at the centrepoint of creation across many different cultures. Zanele’s photographic series Being (T)here, Amsterdam and Somnyama Ngonyama are both claims to this incredible power, as well as rejections of the performativity and the defensive and exoticised posturing that are an inherent part of the social expectations impressed upon womxn across the Global South.

ZaneleMuholi – Umkhuseli (TheProtector) Cr.HaydenPhipps – SGuild

Perhaps the most compelling works in the exhibition are the statues of Zanele appearing as the Blessed Mother Virgin Mary, hands clasped in prayer in a form reminiscent of the cheap plastic votives often peddled at roadsides in Italy and Spain. Part confrontation with their Roman Catholic rearing part allusion to the failure of church and state to protect those most vulnerable in society, the peaceful countenance of the Virgin (Zanele themselves) belies the trials and tribulations endured by Mary and womxn across the globe. The work is a powerful mnemonic device when read in relation to the larger than life, anatomically correct clitoris rendered in reflective bronze.

Zanele Muholi Umphathi (The One Who Carries) 2023 Cr. HaydenPhipps – SGuild

Zanele’s sculptures, statues and photographs are triumphant, transcendent acts of exuberant protest. They are solid, irrefutable claims to the pleasure and uniqueness of the female body in all its glorious detail and they stand in strong opposition to the shame, othering and pain inflicted on the queer and feminine body for centuries across cultures.

“At the end of the day we have bodies, and we are vulnerable human beings. How then do we connect with these realities and the realities of those around us?” Zanele says. “How do we educate people so that they start looking at their bodies as their own bodies rather than as bodies for the other?”


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