Zanele Muholi entered the South African art world with radically intimate photographs of queer lives. Gritty series such as Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture (2004) were presented as documentary photography, but with the classic distancing devices of the genre pared down to compel an uncomfortably close confrontation with lesbian and transgendered embodied experiences.
In their globally celebrated later series, Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), Muholi’s aesthetics shift from the documentary to the theatrical. Photographs of the artist in Afro-camp head-dresses made of washing pegs, combs, feathers or hair extensions, mock the precious art historical canon of self-portraiture. Although playful, the undertone is distinctly defiant as they reveal the coloniality of a mode of portraiture that used the camera to turn subjects into objects of ethnographic and prurient interest. In spite of signalling a clear departure from their earlier activist photography, this ongoing series (which forms a significant part of the current exhibition’s photographic work) still embodies Muholi’s ethos of political exposure, albeit in a more staged manner.
Muholi’s new, eponymous exhibition, which can be seen from 15 June to 17 August at Southern Guild, segues smoothly along this passage from gritty realism to self-revelation and conceptual playfulness.
Arguably one of the most glamorous commercial galleries in Cape Town, the lustre of Southern Guild contributes to the solo exhibition’s veneer of glossy luxury. The space is filled with sculptural installations of monumental body-parts and religious figures that profess a new and deepening exploration of self-portraiture within the wider theatres of gender/sex, corporeality and spirituality.
As with Somnyama Ngonyama, there is an ambiguity at work here. The exhibition is semiotically slippery. On the one hand, it presents as slick and impressive, reminiscent of the polish and perfection of Jeff Koons’ tongue-in-cheek works. On the other, Muholi side-steps Koons’ jokey kitsch in favour of a more earnest political voice. The literal and figurative polish of the exhibition may be disconcerting to viewers who are used to the grittiness of the earlier work, but it tracks a coherent journey from the stark optics and politics of photo-journalism to a sleek aesthetic and auto-performative tone.
The combination of large, sculptural forms in the central spaces and photographs along the walls, and the inclusion of a comfortable interactive space where viewers can participate in tracing and colouring in pictures of Muholi, makes for a thought-provoking, yet entertaining exhibition. Could the sheer monumental scale and finish of the exhibition, in a mainstream commercial gallery slap-bang in the heart of Cape Town’s Waterfront, consolidate Muholi’s entry into celebrity artist league, following the massive success of Somnyama Ngonyama at the Paris Art Fair in 2022?
“The womb has no colour” – Muholi
A penguin-like figure in bronze stands facing down a Madonna. The exquisitely rendered monumental clitoris is mostly rough in texture, except for the glans, which is highly polished and charged like a bullet. Muholi as Madonna is simply beautiful. The larger-than-life figure is made of resin, marble dust and bronze. It is called Umkhuseli (The Protector) and has Muholi’s face. The imposing figure has downcast-eyes and holds its hands together in prayer. The bronze feet are bare and peek out beneath the palest white folds of the tunic that falls in the erotic lines of labia. The impression is of deep meditation.
One watches these two in dialogue with one-another, because their interaction is both a confrontation of, and a meditation on, the representations (biological, artistic, religious) that have shaped womxn’s sexualities for centuries as hidden, shameful, illicit, excessive, or simply non-existent. Muholi grew up Catholic and attends a queer-friendly church in Natal, and clearly intends to trouble religious veneration and the church’s erasure of sex and queerness.
This erasure, this violent excision of what should be joyful and healthy, is challenged throughout the exhibition. Anatomical revelations about the morphology of the clitoris overwrite the ‘shameful dark continent’ of female sexuality and counters it as a joyous playground of sensual delights.
What Muholi’s Catholic upbringing brought to their own sensual journey and psycho-social torment is explored through sculptures as well as photographs. It is this tension, between the strictures of society and sensual delight, between organised religion and the gifts of spiritual consciousness, between knowledge and disavowal, that lends the exhibition its rich semiotic slippages. Centred on the theme of non-prescriptive female sexuality, it also insists on faith and spirituality, depicting them as complementary, rather than oppositional, a playful but spiritual queer desire.
This assertion of the generative queerness of womxn goes much deeper than the vulva, into the deepest recesses of the female body – through the cervix, to the womb. Here stands a monumental uterus, in all details anatomically correct except for fallopian tubes that end in large hands protectively enfolding the ovaries. The uterus is partly bisected, so that the ribbing of the vaginal canal and the inside of the uterine chamber is visible. It bends in a dynamic curve, not so much organ as orgiastic figure arching its back in rapture.
For Julia Kristeva, the first and deepest abjection is the abjection of the mother. We disavow the knowledge that we all, regardless of gender, sex, creed, race or nationality, come from the same place and remain in thrall to it, no matter how our egos wish to assert our distinctiveness and difference. Madonna as both virgin and mother is a potent example of the disavowal of female sexuality and fertility. That we are all products of sex and the female body, is a simple but uncomfortable truth, hard to wrap one’s head around.
Much like the ultimate truth of death and decay, the truth of our uterine origins are sublimated and sanitised or violently repressed.
It is this – the ecstatic assertion of alter-sexuality, and the assertive defiance of all the practices that render female and queer sexuality deviant and shameful, that gives this exhibition its conceptual potency.
In a nearby room, a larger-than-life figure (again Muholi) sits clothed in a robe that could be a religious vestment, but also references a blanket covering the corpse of a woman who was brutally raped and murdered, which left an indelible impression on the young Muholi. The figure sits with legs straddling an oversized, shiny, gold vulva that is seemingly suspended outside the figure. In the text accompanying the work, Muholi explains that “the most intimate part of a woman’s body is used to vilify her – there are so many insults related to the vagina, in every language.”
As the folds of the robe falls open, the viewer sees the figure’s nakedness. Their head is thrown back, eyes closed, oblivious to the mirror in front of them. In this masturbatory pose, Muholi’s quest to venerate “the most sacred place” of the human body becomes clear.
“Portraiture is my prayer” says Muholi.
Those who intone religious or sexist hate-speech are chastised by this potent image of sexual and religious embrace. The language of fetish becomes the connective tissue between sexual and religious ecstasy, that which allows us to find joyful pleasure in both. Together these works form a powerful and affective language that celebrate acts of spiritual and erotic bodily worship.
The most profound contribution of this exhibition is perhaps that there is no shame, humiliation or embarrassment in any of the ‘self-portraits’. There is no shame about being a person of faith and no shame that results from this faith. No judgement of desire, but rather an embrace of sexual jouissance. And, whilst there is a clear critique being offered by Muholi, a critique of prejudice at the very least, there is also a kindness and generosity to the exhibition that emanates from the artist’s hard-won self-love. This is a portrait that testifies of a political confidence that, wonderfully, results in self-forgetfulness.
An exhibition comprised of many likenesses of Muholi, is thus, paradoxically, infused with humility.
This magnificent body of work (pun intended) represents the ever-evolving person(ae) of the artist. Here we see not only Muholi, but their community as those who invent a sexuality that is honest, unafraid and wonderfully complicated. This joyful contentment is a gift that, although shiny, is precious far beyond commercial gloss.