Zanele Muholi’s New York show is a political memoir in paint and photography

Zanele Muholi’s New York show is a political memoir in paint and photography

In New York, South African visual activist Zanele Muholi, best known for chronicling South Africa’s Black trans, queer and intersex communities in photography, unveils their largest exhibition of paintings

Zanele Muholi, the internationally acclaimed artist and visual activist known for intense, high-contrast photographs, is unveiling their first large-scale exhibition of paintings at Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.

In ‘Awe Maaah!’, the South African artist’s acrylic-on-canvas works will be staged alongside a presentation of new photographs from Somnyama Ngonyama, (Hail the Dark Lioness), Muholi’s ongoing series of photographic self-portraits.

Collectively, the works further Muholi’s longstanding visual activism, referencing earlier works such as the Blood Mandalas and menstrual blood paintings.

Phupho, 2021. Copyright Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg painting
Phupho, 2021. Copyright Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

‘I’m very conscious of the process of making and hope that this connects to the politics of seeing and the politics of acting through seeing. These works ask me what it means to be present,’ says the artist, who had their first major UK survey at London’s Tate Modern in 2020 – which will be travelling throughout Europe this autumn – and took part in Photo 2021, Melbourne earlier this year. ‘I want people to see themselves differently through them too… We are in changing times, the world will have to start afresh, so these become a visual memoir so that those who come after us – seeing when and where these were produced – can get answers about how we lived, what we thought about and our circumstances.’

In Muholi’s paintings, unlike their photographs, colour plays a starring role. Costumery and vibrant colour are harnessed to explore the multiplicity of gender roles and representation. In Zibuyile, Muholi addresses the Zulu tradition of dowry (or ‘lobola’) in which the bride is treated as an asset, exchanged for cattle or cash. In Phiwokakhe, the artist is depicted as a traditionally assertive masculine figure, assured of their place in the world. By contrast, the figure in Itha exudes a vulnerability traditionally associated with femininity.

Zibuyile, 2021, Copyright Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg
Zibuyile, 2021, Copyright Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

The show channels the collective isolation, intimacy, and confinement brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, but also deeply personal. For the artist, painting surfaced as both a practical response and a contemplative exercise during a time of fear and uncertainty. 

Across photography and painting, Muholi plays the roles of participant and image-maker, augmenting ideas around self-representation, collective identity and Black queer visibility. §

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