Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases 3 Years, 3 Continents, 3 Venues

[L] Zanele Muholi, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011. [R] Collen Mfazwe, August House, Johannesburg, 2012.
© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.


Zanele Muholi is an activist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Working with her camera and from the web platform of Inkanyiso, photography is the vehicle for her activism. She works to highlight queer visibility as an integral part of South African history and culture. Falling somewhere between documentary and portraiture, these photos tell the tale of a community that has been subjected to multiple levels of discrimination—because each of them identified as a woman. Or black. Or a lesbian.

But Muholi’s photos do not seek pity from their audience, nor do they bemoan their status as victims. They exist to prove an existence. Even as some of her sitters have since disappeared—victims of violent hate crimes—the Faces and Phases series demonstrates that these women are real, and they are many. Beginning in 2007, Muholi asked black lesbians from her environs to sit for her. Always first developing a rapport and gaining explicit permission, Muholi captures each sitter’s essence while using only natural light and no subsequent photo manipulation. By taking each photo from the same distance and cropping the sitter at the bust, Muholi creates a continuum for the series. Each image, printed in monochrome, aligns with the next. Any single silhouette could be exchanged with that of another figure from the grid of photos. Indeed, the grid is primary curatorial strategy for displaying this series.



This study will compare three installations of the Faces and Phases series in order to elucidate lenses by which we can read the photos and their grid. Even though many of the same photographs were shown at each iteration, the particular techniques for hanging the work inspire and affect the viewer’s experience. As we revisit these particular installations, it becomes clear that the spacing, framing, lighting—the hallmarks of exhibition design—actually impact our perception of the artwork. The three spaces in question here are the Imaginary Fact exhibition of the South Africa Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, the Precarious Imaging exhibition at Raw Material Company for the 2014 Dak’art Biennale, and the solo show Isibonelo/Evidence at The Brooklyn Museum in 2015. An illustrious biennale, an independent art space, and a major New York museum—three art spaces on three continents. Each employing a type of grid as its curatorial strategy, but to differing effect.


Towering and Isolated


In Venice, the work was hung in an almost perfect grid along a single wall. Almost reaching the ceiling, the photographs above head were extremely difficult to see since there was only a narrow margin of space between the viewer and the wall, an arrangement that prevented the viewer from stepping back and seeing the wall in its entirety. The tight space forced the viewer to pass closely, engaging the photographs at a more intimate level—an experience which either called the viewer to return the sitter’s intentional gaze or to feel discomfort at the seemingly unending row of eyes. The photos were pinned directly to the wall with a few centimeters of negative space between each image. With the space serving to delineate the faces from each other, this configuration gave the portraits a sense of isolation. Despite the formal similarities within the photographs, each woman seemed to be adrift and unconnected. And since the viewer could not distance herself from the wall, there was an impression that the photos went on infinitely in each direction. Additionally, a few spaces in the grid (approximately ten) contained no photo, further conveying a sense of alienation between the portraits and, consequently, the lesbian community of South Africa. Individual sitters—each one hanging alone in a seemingly endless sea of black and white gloss.


Imaginary Fact Exhibition Installation View, South Africa Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Zanele Muholi.


The other photographs in this group exhibition were matted with precision and displayed behind glass. Whether it was a curatorial decision, a logistical issue, or a budgetary restraint, the manner of pinning the 206 photos by Muholi gave the Faces and Phases series a more DIY aesthetic, as if a friend or supporter was tacking up the images like campaign posters or advertisements. Like a portrait pinned on the wall of a salon, these photos are conversational and convey the feeling of amicability between the sitter and the camera. Muholi’s work is professional and the quality of the photo and its printing are always first-rate, but the work is ultimately about her personal circle. The revenue from her exhibitions, sale of works, and lecture honorariums goes directly back into nourishing the community that inspires her creativity. Whether it involves sponsoring a soccer team and sending them to France, or inviting a younger photographer like Terra Dick to accompany her on an international trip, or hosting a workshop to develop networking skills, Muholi directs both her work and its effects to inscribe actual opportunities and change for black lesbians in South Africa.


Active and Communal


Constantly adding to the series, Muholi exhibited another iteration of Faces and Phases at Raw Material Company, an independent art space in Dakar founded by Koyo Kouoh, as part of the corollary “OFF” exhibitions at the 2014 Dak’art Biennale. In this exhibition, Precarious Imaging, Muholi was one of five African artists whose work addressed contemporary LGBTI issues and, like at Venice, the number of images she contributed was higher than that of any other artist. The curators, Kouoh and Kenyan artist Ato Malinda, employed a variation of the grid in order to accommodate the panoply of photos. The rows of floor to ceiling photos adorned one wall of the gallery before turning a corner and following the architectural layout down a hallway. The photos intersected with the portals of this small hallway and, in essence, created a small nook, allowing the visitor to be immersed in the gazes. This curatorial strategy also necessitates participation on the part of the viewer, inviting them to physically engage and interact—as opposed to standing at a distance and surveying all the faces in a single sweep. The viewer is refused this authority; he cannot idly consume and dismiss the female black bodies. They inspire the viewer to movement and determine his steps. “What face is around the bend? Whose gaze will return mine on this side?” Here, the photos continue to read as individuals, but their tight formation—no space between the portraits–reflects a unity. Forming a single black and white mass, this installation guards the unique features of each sitter, due to the more human scale of the space, while creating a common ground for their shared experiences as oppressed or neglected members of South Africa’s historico-cultural sphere.


Precarious Imaging Exhibition Installation View, 2014, Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Joseph Underwood.


Precarious Imaging also hung the photos unframed and without matting, using simple pins to affix them. Also similar to Venice, the photos were not aligned in a perfect grid—certain spaces were left empty, the exposed grey wall of the gallery evoking a sense of void. One might wonder if there was once a photo. Or if its absence is an indicator that its sitter has also disappeared. Eerily echoing this sentiment is the fact that this exhibition at Raw Material Company provoked the ire of certain Muslim leaders, leading to the show’s temporary closure. The hint of menace may reflect the continued violence against LGBTI persons in Africa and could inspire a sense of worry for those who remain—who will go missing next? Portraits take on new resonance as the only remaining avatar of the person. Alternatively, the empty spaces of the grid can be read as the missing narratives, the voices that were never heard—either because their lives were cut short or because they never stepped forward or spoke out. A third, more optimistic, interpretation would view these spaces as openings, creating a welcoming space for the next portrait in the series. With a readymade window, the new addition would be surrounded by a community, a group of women who represent a new generation of visibility and voice. Whereas the gaps in Venice merely conveyed an absence in a mass, the tight-knit installation in Dakar allows more ambiguity that question the role of that empty space as it affects a group’s community.


Precarious Imaging Exhibition Installation View (Detail), 2014, Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Joseph Underwood.


Fixed and Aestheticized


Faces and Phases is currently installed in Muholi’s first major U.S. solo exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum as part of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art’s schedule, running until November 2015. Mounted in the U.S. during a flurry of highly visible racial tension and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, the photographs and statistics addressing the brutal “corrective” rapes or murders of LGBTI individuals in South Africa only increase our awareness of the enduring violence against the black body. The exhibition includes more recent works by Muholi, including an installation of her own funeral, photography series on lesbian and gay weddings in South Africa, and videos documenting these unions. The highlight, however, remains the Faces and Phases series which is continually updated as Muholi works in and around Johannesburg.


Zanele Muholi- Isibonelo/Evidence Installation View, 2015. Photo by Jonathan Dorado. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.


Zanele Muholi- Isibonelo/Evidence Installation View, 2015. Photo by Jonathan Dorado. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.


The installation of the series at Brooklyn Museum is given the most prominent wall in the first gallery of the exhibition. A freestanding wall on either end of the gallery frames the space, one covered with handwritten testimonials from the sitters in the photos (“Here in South Africa you have judges sending women to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her baby, but men who gang rape women, who murder lesbians, who beat their wives, they walk the street as free men.”) and the other featuring a bar graph that documents the disconcerting rate of violent crimes against LGBTI individuals in South Africa. The portraits—arranged in a perfect grid with no empty spaces—compete with no other works in the gallery. The long wall opposite the series is empty, covered in the same neutral gray tone, except for a small tray which holds the laminated placard that identifies each photo and sitter by name. Here, the viewer is free to step back from the series and gaze on the entirety of the series from a single perspective. Such a perspective rectifies the towering sense created by the constricted space of the Venice installation, but loses something of the personability that came from the lower ceilings and nook found in Dakar.

The second major difference in the Brooklyn installation is the matting and framing of the photographs. Fewer photographs are exhibited but each one is tucked behind hallowed glass and immaculately delineated by a white mat and industrial frame. Typical for a museum installation, the precise, gleaming arrangement connotes the value of Muholi’s photographs as works of fine art and exemplary portraits, but also removes any sense of immediacy. Gone is the feeling that these women are our contemporaries and that the series itself is in flux. The manicure of the framed photos seems fixed—historicized and aestheticized—where the tacked-up nature of the unmatted photos seems circulatory—able to change and move, or evacuate and resettle. The fact that Brooklyn installed the photos in a perfect grid also gives the series a sense of permanence or finality. How would we accommodate the inclusion of new photos? Would the series respond to the women who go missing? Because there are no empty spaces, the viewer is given less room to reflect on the real questions that affect this living, dynamic community.

There is always a sense of collaboration in shaping the viewer’s experience with the subject matter, in that the artist and curator are each partially responsible for the meaning conveyed to the viewer. As Muholi continues to expand the series, and as curators face the unique challenges of their geo-cultural constraints and individual institutions, further consideration of the Faces and Phases series will be necessary. With these photographs of an evolving, dynamic community, each installation has the potential to be a space for reflecting on pertinent questions that concern not only the future of South Africa, but also on LGBT issues more broadly.


Written by Joseph Underwood.


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This article was edited on Oct 2, 2015 after publishing to address the incorrect omission of the last paragraph.

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