Exploring Identity: Zanele Muholi’s Solo Show at Southern Guild

From 15 June to 17 August 2023, Southern Guild will host an extraordinary exhibition, showcasing the remarkable talent of visual activist Zanele Muholi.

Aptly named “ZANELE MUHOLI,” this autobiographical exhibition will captivate audiences with its thought-provoking sculpture and photography. By delving into the depths of personal experiences and societal challenges, Muholi’s largest presentation of new sculptures to date and the inclusion of their latest photography series, “Somnyama Ngonyama” (Hail the Dark Lioness), will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.

Additionally, the exhibition will feature captivating video works and a dedicated space for programming and educational outreach, ensuring a truly immersive experience for visitors.

Embracing Self-Portraiture: A Bold Reckoning with Taboos and Trauma

Exploring Identity: Zanele Muholi's Solo Show at Southern Guild
Zanele Muholi | Qhawe, Umbumbulu, KwaZulu Natal, 2020 | Image: Zanele Muholi

Over the years, Muholi has expanded their artistic focus, reclaiming ownership of their narrative beyond its award-winning photography. At the heart of “ZANELE MUHOLI” lies a personal exploration, tackling themes such as sexual pleasure and freedom, societal taboos surrounding female genitalia and biological processes, gender-based violence, trauma, pain, loss, sexual rights, and biomedical education. Through their art, Muholi calls for a new era of self-expression, sexuality, motherhood, and healing, fostering kinder modes of survival in our contemporary world.

The exhibition serves as a response to the ongoing femicide in South Africa, the stigmatization faced by LGBTQI+ communities, and the alarming rise of gender-based violence, particularly the abhorrent ‘curative’ or ‘corrective’ rape targeting Black lesbians.

Muholi’s personal struggle with uterine fibroids and their profound introspection regarding their Catholic upbringing profoundly inform the exhibition’s emotive symbolism.

Challenging the Gaze: An Intimate Reflection on Performative Exoticism

Throughout Muholi’s body of work, the gaze becomes a subject of interrogation. Notably, the exhibition will include a lightbox installation featuring photographs from the early series “Being (T)here, Amsterdam.”

These captivating images document an intervention Muholi undertook in Amsterdam’s Red Light District during their Thami Mnyele Foundation Residency in 2009.

In these photographs, Muholi presents themselves as a sex worker adorned with an isiZulu beaded waistbelt called ‘umutsha’ and a black satin corset, capturing the attention of passersby from the gallery’s public-facing windows. The powerful and alluring poses draw spectators closer, but Muholi purposefully breaks away from the voyeuristic gaze, symbolizing the exhaustion experienced from performing such exoticism.

Muholi emphasizes that what the art world perceives as ‘performance’ is an integral part of their upbringing: “All that is seen as ‘performance’ in the art world is something that we ourselves grew up with.”

Their ongoing self-portraiture series, “Somnyama Ngonyama,” boldly rejects the exoticizing gaze. Each photograph in this series combines elements of performance, political protest, and African informal trade and craft markets. Whether using toothpaste mixed with Vaseline as lipstick or assembling clothing pegs to create a headpiece, Muholi crafts striking images, often captured with only natural light.

These nomadic and impromptu shoots typically occur in solitude, showcasing Muholi’s African ingenuity borne out of necessity. For Muholi, portraiture is a daily prayer, an urgent need for visibility that transcends their individual experience, encompassing every female body that has ever existed in their family.

From Bronze to Spirituality: Honouring Ancestry and Shifting Perspectives

Muholi’s exploration extends beyond the realm of two-dimensional art, as demonstrated by their three-dimensional foray into bronze sculptures. These sculptures pay homage to Muholi’s familial roots while commemorating the contributions of Black women and LGBTQI+ individuals to art, politics, medical sciences, and culture.

One striking sculpture portrays Muholi emerging from a body of water, cradling a vessel adorned with breasts atop their head. Another sculpture magnifies the uterus on a grand scale, representing what the artist describes as a “self-portrait of being.”

By presenting the uterus as a deified form, Muholi challenges the historical shame, violence, and misinformation that have plagued this organ for centuries. To Muholi, the uterus serves as their signature, their DNA, symbolizing their origin and existence. Raising the uterus to a revered status bestows honour upon it, countering the negative narratives that have overshadowed it throughout history.

A Testament to Resilience: From Sorrow to Empathy

In the exhibition, visitors will encounter a striking two-meter-high sculpture of Muholi, draped in robes, with clasped hands in prayer—an evocative reinterpretation of the Virgin Mary.

This powerful work draws parallels to Mary’s sorrows as a mother and protector, highlighting the failures of law, religion, and politics to adequately address gender injustice. Muholi’s Roman Catholic upbringing serves as a poignant reference point, as they call upon communal healing, remembrance, and the revival of empathic conscience and consciousness through prayer.

Adjacent to the provocative Black Madonna sculpture, an awe-inspiring bronze sculpture portrays the full anatomy of the clitoris, encompassing the glans, body, crura, bulbs, and root.

Exploring Identity: Zanele Muholi's Solo Show at Southern Guild
Zanele Muholi | Ncinda, 2023 | Image: Hayden Phipps / Southern Guild

Unlike the penis, which is openly discussed and displayed from a young boy’s adolescence, the clitoris remains taboo, despite being widely acknowledged as the centre of sensuality and sexual pleasure for women and female-bodied individuals throughout history. Muholi’s artistic expression transcends this disparity, affirming the clitoris as a site of pleasure and power.

The Revolution of Pleasure: Celebrating Self-Love and Freedom

Muholi’s creative mode of survival lies in their ability to transform pain into pleasure, transgressing societal taboos and embracing the divine. This revolutionary act is captured in a monumental bronze sculpture depicting the artist in a monk-like figure. Draped in flowing vestments, legs splayed, and head thrown back in ecstatic release, this monastic figure embodies the act of self-pleasure.

The euphoria of release resonates throughout Muholi’s whimsical photographic series, “Amanzi” (Water), which documents the artist’s immersion in a tidal pool. These contemplative images transition from stillness to dynamic movement, as the waves surround the dancing figure, imbuing the series with a sense of liberation.

Yet amidst this celebration of freedom, the exhibition also confronts the sombre reality of discomfort and incongruence. One monumental bronze sculpture encapsulates Muholi’s struggle with fibroids and gender dysphoria, depicting a monstrous entanglement engulfing the artist’s body. This queer avatar symbolizes the anxiety, depression, and somatic unease arising from the disconnect between one’s identity and their physical form.

ZANELE MUHOLI: A Triumph of Identity and Activism

ZANELE MUHOLI” is a profound exploration of the agony and ecstasy that accompanies existing within a Black, queer female body. Through their powerful art, Muholi transcends the boundaries of traditional mediums, leaving an indelible mark on the world.

This exhibition invites viewers to witness Muholi’s journey as an artist and visual activist, challenging social norms, advocating for reproductive and sexual rights, and sparking a collective awakening of empathy and consciousness. Experience the captivating world of Zanele Muholi’s artistry and activism, and join in the celebration of resilience, identity, and the enduring power of the human spirit.

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