Somile, 2021, Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, and Stevenson Gallery, CapeTown/Johannesburg.
Every turn of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum offers a new vision of “Being Muholi: portraits as resistancea groundbreaking exhibition of the South African visual activist’s work on view until May 8. Zenele Muholi is known for her striking black and white photographs; the Gardner exhibition is the first time that the artist’s pieces of painting and sculpture have been featured in an exhibition alongside their photographs.
In a sort of takeover, the exhibition uses the outdoor public art space, the Hostetter Gallery in the contemporary wing of the museum and the Fenway Gallery in the historic Gardner Museum. Curators Pieranna Cavalchini, Tom and Lisa Blumenthal Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum, and Theo Tyson, Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, visited Muholi in South Africa to conceptualize the show with the artist.
At the contemporarygallery space, a wall of vibrant and colorful paintings faces a wall of classic Muholi blackwhite and white picturegraphics. Muholi started explore painting as a medium during the pandemic, when they had time off to better reflect on their native South Africa and experiment with new creative processes.
In many ways, the paintings resemble the photographs. They are tightly cropped, mostly showing subjects from the bust up. The figures are bold and powerful, yet graceful. Hair is a key element, as it is in much of Muholi’s work. Black hair textures and styles are often used as starting points for discrimination, but in Muholi’s paintings and photographs, hair acts as a crown, a point of power and energy.
“I claim my blackness, which I feel is continually interpreted by the privileged other,” says Muholi. “My reality is that I don’t imitate being black; it’s my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply rooted in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year and we must speak without fear. »
Jit’s paintings connect directly to the “Somnyama Ngonyama”, a self-portrait series translated as “Hail the Dark Lionesse. Installed directly opposite the paintings, selections from this series show Muholi photographed in different personalities, highlighting their native Zulu heritage and conceptions of black identity, and often using household items to create dynamic shapes. and comment on societal consumption.
“For me, ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ is a way of addressing that past – of addressing its politics of race, racism and colonialism – and it’s also a way of addressing a past that still informs the present” , says Muholi. “For me, photography is always first and foremost a tool for activism, driven by the idea of social change.”
In “Cwazimula”, Muholi wears silver reflective bags acting as a crown and robe over their form. These are Whole Foods delivery bags that Tyson gave to the artist during Muholi’s 2019 residency with the Gardner. The exhibition includes five pieces that were created during this residency. The bags create an architectural aesthetic element and reference the crown theme, while also commenting on sustainability and waste.
Community collaboration is also a key part of Muholi practice. This manifests itself in several ways in “Being Muholi”. The contemporary gallery features a whiteboard wall where visitors can write down their thoughts and reactions to the exhibit. Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola wrote two poems, one in direct reaction to a specific photograph and the other in response to LGBTQIA+ representation at Fenway Gallery. These poems have been meticulously integrated into the landscape of the exhibition. Using a QR code, visitors can hear the poet read them. A series of performance-focused community events will be held in the coming months.
In the center of the room is a powerful bronze sculpture, the very first by the artist. Simply titled “Muholi”, the piece is a three-dimensional manifestation of the sculptural elements of Muholi’s photographs. Tyson describes how the piece embodies the experience of many people identifying with black women. “You are expected to be as strong and formidable as this bronze sculpture,” Tyson says. “This strength comes from a place of gentleness.”
Force is a central theme in Muholi’s work, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Muholi’s self-portraits and Fenway Gallery’s portraits, which feature transgender beauty queens and intimate moments in same-sex relationships, make room for LGBTQIA+ people in the traditionally white and heteronormative museum world. This space is both metaphorical and physical, as these works of art are housed in the historic Gardner Museum. But this space must be made because of the abuses these subjects have faced, especially in the South African homeland of Muholi.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful examples of the dichotomy between joy and pain,” Tyson says of the show. “It’s not about survival, it’s about thriving.”