Public Media Arts Hub

Exhibit chronicles the career of a South African activist fighting for trans visibility


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Sir Zanele Muholi of South Africa has been documenting queer and trans people in that country for decades. Describing themself as a visual activist, Muholi aims to celebrate life, joy and the beauty of the community. Muholi work is being shown across the country and the world this spring.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of public station GBH reports on one exhibit in Boston for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: This is Sir Zanele Muholi, intent that people be seen and acknowledged.

In picture after picture, Muholi wants us to take in their pride, their togetherness, their very being.

Sir Zanele Muholi, Visual Artist: All I ever wanted to do was to make sure that I become the voice for change in South Africa, in which every single being who is Black, who is queer, who is trans is documented in South Africa.

Jared Bowen: For nearly 20 years, Muholi has been photographing LGBTQIA+ people in South Africa. In the aftermath of apartheid, it was the first nation in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But that community remains subject to high rates of violence and murder, especially among young and Black people. Muholi has used photography to change the culture.

Sir Zanele Muholi: It's like, you cannot dare to ignore it. It is Black. It is beautiful. It is in your walls. And it forces you to wonder, how can you, as a white person, deal with a Black image, deal with Black people in your spaces, deal with Black colleagues in your workplace?

Jared Bowen: Their work, stemming from their role as a self-described visual activist, is on view at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Theo Tyson, Co-Curator, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: You see a sense of undeniable pride that comes from a confidence in being.

Jared Bowen: Theo Tyson is the show's co-curator. And the work became even more layered, Tyson says, when Muholi began creating stylized self-portraits in 2012, part of a series shot all over the world called Somnyama Ngonyama, translated from Zulu as Hail the Dark Lioness.

Theo Tyson They're not playing dress-up. The costumery, if you will, is part of the storytelling. There are clothespins used to talk about domestic labor and share stories of their mother, luggage wrap that's used to talk about issues with travel, racism, colorism.

There are the plastic gloves that we see in sort of this signs of the times and what that represents, from sexual violence to access to health care to now COVID and what we need to do to protect ourselves.

Jared Bowen: Originally, you didn't necessarily turn the camera on yourself. What was the genesis of that?

Sir Zanele Muholi: I guess that, after many years of documenting other people or photographing other people, I needed to remember me. I wanted to pay homage to my mom. Her spirit forever lives with me. If she didn't suffer from labor pains for me to be born, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now.

Jared Bowen: In these images, Muholi also increases the contrast of their skin tone in postproduction. It's yet another conversation with the viewer, Muholi says.

Sir Zanele Muholi: This is just engagement. How far can we go with our bodies? How far can we go with our voices? How fearful are we to say what makes us feel uncomfortable?

So, are we brave enough to face the world out there that doesn't allow us to be either as Black, either as queer folks, either as anything?

Jared Bowen: The exhibition also features Muholi's latest work, their first sculpture and paintings never before seen in a museum.

Pieranna Cavalchini is the shows co-curator.

Pieranna Cavalchini, Co-Curator, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: It's so exciting, this idea of still dealing with different characters and archetypes, and also connecting the painting to the photography in very interesting ways.

Jared Bowen: Cavalchini came to know Muholi during their time as one of the museum's artists-in-residence in 2019 and during a trip with Tyson to Cape Town. The show, she says, paints the duality of Muholi.

Pieranna Cavalchini: Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance, it's the idea of letting Muholi be. So it's Muholi as an artist-activist, very powerfully, so. But, at the same time, there is a humanity. There's that sense of vulnerability.

Jared Bowen: Which Muholi readily talks about. The paintings were mostly made last year during a period of pain, so these works were a way of healing, even if they're sold at the end of the day.

Sir Zanele Muholi: What's different is the color. So, for once, I was, like, trying to dive out of the drowning.

Jared Bowen: What did you see when you stepped back after you had completed these paintings and saw the color?

Sir Zanele Muholi: It's very interesting. You, you fall in love knowing that you might lose that lover, you know? And once it's out of your sight, and it belongs to the other, so it's like losing love, and that love belongs to someone. And you wonder if you will ever, like, touch it again.

Jared Bowen: But being Muholi means that love was fully realized.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston.

Judy Woodruff: Some remarkable work.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.