Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 15, 2016
Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence Brooklyn Museum, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Brooklyn Museum, New York, May 1–November 8, 2015
Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence. Installation view. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

A powerful signifier of knowledge and collective memory in Western modernity, the archive has been a topic of much interest in art history and cultural studies. The scholarship of the last few decades—from Michel Foucault’s to Hal Foster’s—has exposed its artifice, indeterminacy, and historical role in the formation and operation of power structures. What is more, despite the fact that the photograph’s claim of veracity has been seriously challenged by the visual culture of the late twentieth century, it has remained a key component of most modern archives. Thus, photography, more as a discursive agent than as a medium, has made us aware of the myth of the archive. This awareness of the archive as a thoroughly mediated discursive space has led many artists to either manipulate archival strategies to shed fresh lights on familiar issues, or to take the notion of the archive itself as the subject of their art. But what if someone sidesteps such avenues and exhibits images that are part of an actual archive in the making, the visual component of a larger activist project aimed at social justice? When confronted by this situation, how do we negotiate our acknowledgement of the project’s intent with our contemporary deconstructionist impulse with regard to the archive? How does it function in the space of contemporary art, which often has an ambivalent relationship with images that assert specific social or political convictions? The solo exhibition Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum, curated by Catherine J. Morris and Eugenie Tsai, raises precisely such questions.

Zanele Muholi (b. 1972), who identifies herself more as a visual activist than an artist, is committed to fighting for the rights of the LGBT community in her home country of South Africa and abroad. Engaged in chronicling the history of this marginalized demographic, over the last decade her photo and video projects have documented multiple facets of LGBT life in South Africa, focusing particularly on hate crimes against the community. The portrait series Faces and Phases (2006–15), represented by eighty-seven large black-and-white portraits of lesbian women in gelatin silver prints, is the highlight of the exhibition. Installed in one of three galleries, the display also features a tall, black wall covered with excerpts—handwritten in white—from Muholi’s interviews with the subjects of the photographs. The two adjacent galleries have scenes from the Weddings series (2013). One has two dozen chromogenic color photographs of lesbian weddings and community life as well as a blurred video (Being Scene, 2012) of Muholi and her partner making love. In the third room, a video documenting a wedding, entitled Ayanda Magoloza and Nhlanhla Moremi’s Wedding, plays on one wall. Contrasting the joyous scene, a transparent plexiglass coffin sits on the floor behind the audience, inside which is a framed photograph of the deceased victim of a hate crime on a bed of cotton. A bouquet of flowers rests on the coffin, and two spotlighted posters reporting hate crimes occupy the nearby wall.

South Africa was the first country in the world to constitutionally recognize gay rights in 1996, and the first in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage a decade later. Yet LGBT identities remain deeply stigmatized in South African social life, and individuals are often met with vicious attacks: brutal beatings, “curative” rapes, torture, and murder. In the face of such violent dehumanization of non-heterosexual women and men, a significant portion of Muholi’s work rejects artistic ambiguity in favor of direct confrontation. Its message is to generate awareness not only of brutal homophobia, but also of the dignity of LGBT individuals. It is, for Muholi, nothing less than a human rights issue. She insists that the people she photographs are “participants” in her projects, not merely the subjects of her images. Lined up in two rows on the same wall, the large black-and-white photographs of Faces and Phases effectively convey the gravity of the series, which began in memory of a friend who died in 2007 from HIV complications following a sexual assault. Nobody smiles in these portraits. There is no choice for viewers but to confront their gazes, because set against a background of patterned drapery, textured wall, or simply dissolving gray, the glances—straight or oblique—have an intensity that betrays both pride and apprehension. But most crucially, despite the overall pictorial uniformity, each character asserts an individuality that is captivating; each eye contact promises to tell stories of a specific life. Then, once viewers turn to the towering black wall with scribbled testimonies about rape, assault, and murder, they realize how harrowing some of those stories are. Combined with the pictorial strategy of the portraits, the wall, like a somber monument to both suffering and determination, sets the mood of the room. The installation is an eloquent appeal to justice, articulated through silence.

The visual ambience of the next room, by contrast, is far more playful: the characters of these photographs smile, interact, love, and celebrate, offering glimpses into the normalcy of a lifestyle that is harshly ostracized for violating society’s normativity. Far from the deliberately provocative, as in the case of Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious Portfolio X of sadomasochistic images from the 1980s, these photographs attempt to draw, rather than alienate, a broader audience by underscoring the humanity of the characters. They celebrate difference, while resisting the ignominious otherness imposed upon them by patriarchy. Particularly noticeable in this regard is the video Being Scene, playing on a flat-screen monitor. The blurred film of Muholi having sex with her white partner effortlessly avoids charges of pornography, since the moving bodies appear merely as two intimately interacting shapes at the edge of obscurity. And the muffled sound is available only through headphones. Finally, the very different moods of each of the other galleries sharply converge in the third. Here, while viewers watch the merriment of the wedding on one wall, the coffin and the posters behind make painfully aware the ominous threats always lurking in the background of such a festive occasion. And it is the confrontation with this defiant celebration in the face of the uncertain future of its subjects that perhaps helps viewers see the challenge they throw at society in their struggle for empowerment.

While some of Muholi’s projects (not included in the show) explore pictorial possibilities beyond documentation, the unequivocal thrust of her work is toward building a repository of images and narratives of the LGBT experience. The website she founded in 2006,, which documents community events as well as individual media projects and other accomplishments, further testifies to her commitment as a biographer, activist, and educator. As the artist states, “If I wait for someone to validate my existence, it will mean that I am shortchanging myself” (Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series, School of Art and Design, University of Michigan, fall 2015: The initial task of any identity movement is to assert its presence and empower itself in its struggle to transition from the margin. Despite legal recognition, LGBT identities in South Africa are so oppressed that documentation, compilation of information, and active participation of individuals and groups in creative endeavors that bolster solidarity combine to become a crucial educational tool for society as well as a weapon of subversion from that oppression. This is indeed a persuasive rationale for the construction of an archive, which shelves questions about discursivity to offer forcefully its agenda of social justice.

It is a rather different matter, however, when it comes to the relevance of Muholi’s work to the discourse of contemporary art; and in this regard, it is less important how Muholi sees her work in the context of the art world, than how the art world treats her work. With museums expanding the scope of their exhibitions, Muholi’s projects are, for now, framed within an art context. But it is uncertain if this is enough for the long run. Questioning systems of power and the archive’s role in either perpetuating or subverting those systems has been central to the works of critically acclaimed artists, from Hans Haacke to Walid Raad, who have used such strategies to address subjects no less volatile than the one that occupies Muholi. In light of this legacy, the archival thrust of Muholi’s work, too, may soon demand a turn: for instance, in addition to empowering victims, there will be the need to thoroughly address the power structures that relentlessly attempt to disempower them, and the function of the very notion of the archive in that dominance. For all the strength of her current work, how Muholi negotiates with that demand will determine the status of her work in the future chronicles of contemporary art.

Sunanda K. Sanyal
Professor, Art History and Critical Studies, College of Art and Design, Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts