Zanele Muholi travels with a crew: a multitalented posse of artists, project managers, make-up mavens, even a doctor—specifically, a gynecologist. The personnel is variable — in 2012, for a project in Paris, she brought a whole soccer team to the famous Parc des Princes stadium — with the constant that all are South African, Black, and queer, lesbian, or trans folk. Last week, Muholi and her team descended on New York, registering their presence by breaking into group harmonies, dance steps, and South African liberation chants from JFK Airport to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station. “I don’t like to shine alone,” Muholi says. “It’s always nicer to have a number of diamonds.”
Muholi is a photographer, though she prefers the term “visual activist,” not artist, and in fact she’s something more vital and powerful than any of those terms capture. Since 2006 she has built an archive of South Africa’s Black lesbian community through an ongoing series of collaborative black-and-white portraits that brim with love. Lately she has added self-portraiture, daring and textured compositions in which she dons apparel from formal wear to assemblages of found objects and darkens her complexion into a brooding, intent permanence. Her work has made it to major collections like MoMA and the Centre Pompidou. But she channels her fame — and earnings — into her community, from the fellow artists she travels with and whose work she elevates to the teens whom members of Inkanyiso, the artist collective she founded, mentor in workshops. It amounts to a total practice, a way of life: “Visual activism is all that we are,” Muholi says. “This is it, we are doing it.”
This season in New York, Muholi has a photography exhibition at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in Chelsea, and a series of events in the Performa 17 biennial of performance-based art, where she and her team are bringing poetry, dance, music, and photo installation to a host of venues including the Bronx Museum and the Stonewall Inn. At the same time, images from the self-portrait series, Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail, the Dark Lioness”) are running for two weeks on screens atop the Walgreens in Times Square, and on the subway-platform kiosks at hubs including Fulton Street, Atlantic Avenue, and Broadway Junction. “Zanele said, ‘I want to be public, I want to reach people,’” says RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of Performa. “We’re saying, take the city.”
Muholi arrives for an interview with a trimmed-down delegation: Levinia Pienaar, her co-ordinator; Terra Dick, a photographer; and Rosa Boesten, a Dutch filmmaker who is making a documentary. An assortment of devices cross-document the moment. Muholi, a very youthful 45, wears a black t-shirt with big headphones pushed behind her ears, her head topped by a black trilby. She juggles messages on two phones, but once in conversation she is fully engaged, with firm, earnest answers punctuated by laughter.
“I’m not just producing images for show,” Muholi says. “I’m producing images for those who dare to consume what is just to undo all the negativity that comes with our existence and resistance.” The stakes are serious. South Africa’s progressive Constitution of 1996, supplemented by legalization of same-sex marriage in 2006, is continually belied by ghastly hate crimes against queer and trans people, including so-called corrective rape of lesbians and, often, murder. Documenting existence can be a subversive act: Once, burglars broke into Muholi’s house and stole the hard drives containing her work.
Activism, visual or otherwise, came somewhat late to Muholi. Born in 1972, she grew up under apartheid, in the “Bantu education” system that tracked Black people to second-tier professions. Her mother was a domestic worker; her father died months after she was born. In the early ’90s, as the apartheid system ended and South Africa transitioned to democracy, Muholi moved from Durban to Johannesburg and supported herself as a hair stylist, then through her twenties in human-resources jobs. Only afterward did her vocation click into place, when she attended the Market Photo Workshop, a photo school founded by the anti-apartheid documentary photographer David Goldblatt.
“That’s where I was radicalized, encouraged, and given a chance to express,” Muholi says. “Because I don’t just take photographs; I’m dealing with my personal issues.” At root, her practice of documentation is a practice of self-care. “We all have skeletons in our closet. I’m just a troubled human being, and I decided not to see a shrink, but instead to use photography. After taking photographs I feel better, because I feel that I have achieved something. And within those moments of producing the image I shift the focus from many other things and come back to my senses. It’s like going back to my mother’s womb.”
Muholi devotes admiration to Goldblatt, a mentor — “Write that Zanele Muholi loves David Goldblatt,” she says — but her core influences are not photographers at all. References like Nan Goldin, or Cindy Sherman’s conceptual self-portraits, get tossed at her work, but Muholi objects. “Please,” she says. “I’m more inspired by writers than photographers.” Her epiphany, at the workshop, was reading bell hooks, the American Black feminist author. “Black Looks. The importance of self-representation. Before we had the hashtag Black Lives Matter, bell hooks has already said it.” The South African writer Sindiwe Magona is another inspiration, as is the American photo scholar Deb Willis: “Her work speaks volumes to me as a female-bodied being.”
Somnyama Ngonyama, the self-portrait series, is intended to reach 365 images; the 21 on view at Yancey Richardson find Muholi in assorted outfits, fixing the viewer with expressions that range from assertive to wary. In one, she wears a tuxedo with a leopard-print waistcoat and an elaborate vertical hair arrangement; in another, a deconstructed outfit of strips of white tape pressed onto her skin; in a third, she stands in the woods in a dress and headwrap made of leather straps. Make-up and editing darken her skin and intensify her gaze. Each portrait has a name: It might reference someone she knows, or a woman whose contribution to South Africa has been erased in patriarchal history.
Muholi makes her self-portraits where her travels take her, absorbing those experiences into the process, using found materials or ones she buys in local shops. “I work in any space that is given to me, and I use it in ways that work for me,” she says. Earlier this year, she was in Amsterdam, where she had an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum; there, one of her entourage, the filmmaker Sibahle Nkumbi, got pushed down a flight of stairs by an aggressive Airbnb host. Muholi channeled the experience with its racist overtones into a self-portrait as a Dutch Renaissance aristocrat in black coat with elaborate white ruffles, eyebrows raised in an is-that-so expression.
The gallery is also showing images from yet another series, Brave Beauties, portraits of nonbinary and transwomen that, in contrast to the steely self-portraits, ripple with vulnerability, complicity, and warmth. One participant in that series, Eva Mofokeng, is part of Muholi’s Performa crew, alongside poets, drag activists, musicians, and dancers.
Muholi intends her appearances in New York City to connect with local LGBTQI people and express kinship in the face of bias and erasure. She is sensitive, for instance, to the current spike of murders of trans people in the United States. “Often we have Americans in solidarity with us,” she says. “This time we are coming to America to say: We feel your pain, and we are with you.” In the Bronx, Muholi says, their appearance will likely feature local artists; at Stonewall, it will take the form of a party at the foundational queer liberation site. Elsewhere, Muholi will speak at the Schomburg Center with the Black feminist artist Renee Cox, and gaze in likeness, through her images, at tourists in Times Square and commuters on the subway.
“We’re here queerizing spaces, blackening spaces,” Muholi says. At the heart of visual activism is simply being present — and in community. “Let’s just have fun. The more we are together, the more we are able to ease up and undo all the negative energies. I don’t care how you identify, your gender. All I know is that I’m beautiful and I’m willing to share my resources, to collaborate, because I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Zanele Muholi appears in the Performa 17 biennial at various dates and locations through November 10; detailed program at 17.performa-arts.org. Her solo exhibition continues through December 9 at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 525 West 22nd Street; information at yanceyrichardson.com.