Zanele Muholi 'Ntozakhe II, Parktown' (2016) Image courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery © Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi 'Ntozakhe II, Parktown' (2016) Image courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery © Zanele Muholi
  • Art
  • Tate Modern, Bankside
  • Recommended


Zanele Muholi

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

‘No one can tell the story better than ourselves,’ proclaims a quote from artist-photographer Zanele Muholi as you enter this exhibition. Maybe so, but the Tate makes a decent fist of trying in this extended showcase of a visual activist who has spent more than two decades focusing their lens on the lives of the South African Black LGBTQIA+ community through vivid portraits and self-portraiture. An earlier incarnation of the exhibition in 2020 fell prey to Covid restrictions after only five weeks and in the intervening time its narrative has grown, reflecting Muholi’s importance as a creative force for change.

Muholi was born in South Africa in 1972, during the apartheid era, a time of rigid racial and social segregation. The exhibition explores the harsh implications of having binary divides imposed on people; whether of race, gender or sexuality, and the scars those leave. As you progress through the rooms, there’s a sense of travelling towards a sense of the subjects’ (and Muholi’s) healing and wholeness.

The first room is not for the faint-hearted. ‘Aftermath’ is a black-and-white print of a close up of an anonymous torso, gender undisclosed, hands protectively clasped in front of genitals. The pants displaying the legend ‘Jockey’, at odds with the angry scar running down the right thigh, held together by numerous stitches. But even in such bleakness there’s wit. ‘Not Butch but My Legs Are’ points the camera at Muholi’s slippered feet cradling a black coffee, with hairy legs, while images such as ‘ID Crisis’ are Vermeer-like in their exquisite appreciation of light in a single vignette.

The subjects celebrate triumph over adversity as they face their viewer

The next room marks a shift in mood: portraits of the transitions and major life moments of Black lesbians, transgender and gender non-conforming people, its images often capture the same subjects over time, honouring not only transitions but marriage, career, ageing and other life changes. Dressed for the camera, the subjects celebrate triumph over adversity as they face their viewer.

The rest of the show highlights Muholi’s versatility and virtuosity with a camera. Love and love-making are given a soft-focus cinematic feel, whereas the bold colours, beach locations and emphatic stances of ‘Brave Beauties’ highlight the empowerment of pageants such as Miss Gay Beauty.

The jewel of the exhibition is ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’, translated as ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’; a series of extraordinary black-and-white self-portraits that began in 2012 in which Muholi transforms themselves through the most unexpected props – clothes pegs, vacuum cleaner hoses, pan scourers – into powerful icons that question cultural identity, subverting Eurocentric stereotypes of the ‘African’. A recent work movingly portrays the artist as the healing spirit of water, another, with multiple masks, pays homage to lives lost in lockdown. The sheer inventiveness and assurance of these portraits lingers long after leaving.

Not every aspect of the show works as seamlessly. One of the new additions to the exhibition is a number of large bronze sculptures. While these bring a new dimension (literally) to the displays, they are intended as a provocative response to the Western tradition of the commissioned statue of the ‘great and the good’, which usually translates as dead, white, wealthy male. In Paris, the sculptures were exhibited outside at The Jardin des Tuileries, which reads as a more powerful public subversion of the tradition than the works safely tucked inside the ‘white cube’ of the Tate’s rooms. 

The final room is dubbed ‘Collectivity’– underlining that this is not simply a solo retrospective. In it, a small image by Thembela Dick shows a protester carrying a yellow placard that pleads, ‘All that Glitters Is Not Gold, Poor Black Queer Visibility Now!!!’. Seems like Zanele Muholi has answered that prayer.


Tate Modern
Tube: Southwark/Blackfriars
Opening hours:
10am to 6pm

Dates and times

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