Since November 26, the Gropius Bau has opened the first significant exhibition in Germany of the South African visual activist artist Zanele Muholi, who made a name for herself in the 2000s with photographs that tell stories of lesbian, gay, gender-neutral, trans, queer, and intersex lives in South Africa, and more.

Showcasing the full range of artist Zanele Muholi‘s career, Gropius Bau‘s exhibition brings together more than 200 photographs : from their very first collection of work, « Only Half the Picture », to the ongoing series « Somnyama Ngonyama ». Addressing issues of political sexuality, racial aggression, shared opposition, and self-attestation, Zanele Muholi‘s work depicts people living courageously and euphorically despite prejudice. 

An immediate marker of noticeability, empowerment, and social activism, Zanele Muholi‘s photography challenges prevailing generalizations and the heteronormative gaze while addressing different types of social, public, and imaginative empowerment. 

During the 1990s, South Africa experienced significant social and political change. The 1996 South African Constitution ended racial segregation, was the first in the world to prohibit separation based on sexual orientation; yet today, the LGBTQIA+ group continues to face unrestrained savagery and oppression. 

In her first series, « Only Half the Picture »,” Zanele Muholi captures the complexity of encounters within this community: snapshots of love and closeness sit alongside photos that insinuate serious and horrific misadventures into the lives of members. Through additional photos and documents, his exhibition at the Gropius Bau presents his fundamental work as a coordinator, who takes care of media support, and who leads the youngest members on the path of obstruction and attendance.

For Stéphanie Rosenthal, the director of the Gropius Bau : Zanele Muholi‘s work is an important element of change based on articulations of recovery and healing, different creative networks and socio-political change.

Her work shows the repair, compassion, and empowerment that continue regardless of the set of wounds, and affirms how photography can be a method of repair and activism. In a context of post-sanctioned racial segregation and oppression of the LGBTQIA+ group, for the director of the Gropius Bau, Zanele Muholi praises the black diversity in the existence of people who do not fit in.

A cornerstone of the exhibition is Zanele Muholi‘s visual chronicle of portraits, « Faces and Phases », an important work that honors and praises black lesbians, transgender people, and those of no particular orientation. Each member looks straight into the camera, urging the viewer to maintain eye contact with them, while individual statements capture stories and memorialize the deceased. Over 500 photos and statements structure an archive of this area in South Africa and beyond.

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The exhibition includes a few other key series : « Brave Beauties » which celebrates non-binary people and transgender women, many of whom have won Miss Gay Beauty pageants. « Being » which is a collection of delicate photos of couples affirming same-sex love, while challenging winning generalizations and restrictions. The photos, for example, « Melissa Mbambo » or « Durban » which further strive to reclaim public spaces for black and eccentric communities, a side of the ocean in Durban that was racially isolated during apartheid.

In each of these series, Zanele Muholi tells global and individual stories of shared victories, family relationships, and grief. The images challenge preconceived notions of abnormality and exploitation, giving visitors the opportunity to address their own misguided judgments and creating a shared sense of understanding and fortitude. 

In 2012, Zanele Muholi began her acclaimed series of sensational self-portraits titled « Somnyama Ngonyama » or « Hail the Dark Lioness » in isiZulu where she takes on a variety of postures, characters, and models to address issues of race and representation. From scrubbing pads and medical gloves to elastic tires and ties, ordinary materials are transformed into politically charged props and ensembles. 

The following photographs deal with topics such as labor, bigotry, Eurocentrism, and issues of sexuality, frequently remarking on experiences in South Africa and Zanele Muholi‘s encounters as a South African and eccentric traveling abroad. Enhancing the difference in the photos, Zanele Muholi additionally emphasizes their complexion, reclaiming their darkness with satisfaction and re-asserting its magnificence, while addressing the marks of shame associated with race, the mysteries of imperceptibility and hypervisibility.

This account by Zanele Muholi is part of the Gropius Bau‘s series of experiments highlighting critical twentieth-century and contemporary photographic artists, recalling Akinbode Akinbiyi in 2020, Lee Miller, Berenice Abbott, Robert Doisneau, and Thomas Struth in 2016 and Diane Arbus in 2012.

The Zanele Muholi exhibition is organized by Natasha Ginwala, associate curator of Gropius Bau, Yasufumi Nakamori, senior curator at Tate Modern’s art international photography, and Sarah Allen former assistant curator at Tate Modern. The exhibition is coordinated by Tate Modern, London, in collaboration with the Gropius Bau, Berlin, the Maison européenne de la photographie, Paris, the Institut Valencià d’Art Moderne and the Bildmuseet at Umeå University.

Zanele Muholi‘s exhibition at the Gropius Bau in Berlin will run until March 13, 2022.

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