Don’t be deterred by the show of Zanele Muholi, the 50 year old South African photographer, just because she only shoots black lesbians and transgenders. At first it sounds provocative and tedious, but her portraits are so strong that you start forgetting her political activism and you enjoy just the beauty of the shots. At the opening at Maison Européenne de la photographie, even her interpreter was a lesbian, a white woman though. This is her first retrospective in France organized with the Tate Modern in London.
The exhibition starts with “Being”, intimate pictures from 2006, addressing the misconception that same sex love is un-African, a colonial import. Born in a township near Durban, Zanele was 22 when Apartheid was abolished and two years later, in 1996, South Africa voted a new constitution which banned discriminations against sexual orientations. It was the first country in the world to do so. In “Only Half the Picture”, she documents the many survivors in the townships, victims of crimes against LGBTQIA+ and voluntarily hides their faces, shows their scars. A series of beauty pageants is happier with Miss Gay RSA, 2019/20, Candice Nikosi in Durban or a self portrait as miss Lesbian in 2009. There are a few color photographs of drag queen Miss D’Vine in 2007 but most are in Black in White.
There are many pictures of demonstrations and a whole visual directory of black lesbians and transgenders in South Africa. But on the third floor, comes the real treasures of photography. Her self portraits which are in turn hilarious, aesthetical and stunning. Zanele plays with black and white with silver make up and glittering clothes or coiffes. This is when I truly started enjoying the show. Therapist who studied at Ryerson University in Toronto in 2009 and made her film “Difficult Love” with Peter Goldsmid in 2010, was also the cofounder of FEW, Forum for Empowerment of Women in South Africa. She was exhibited in 2019 at the Venice Biennale.
Many of the titles of her pictures are in Zoulou, one of 11 official languages in South Africa. She uses a number of utensils such as sponge, clothes pegs, latex gloves as a tribute to her mother who was working in a white people’s house and raised seven children after her father died.
For the Paris show, three acrylic paintings from 2021 were added. They hang on the second floor and are quite striking. You walk out of the show with beautiful dark images in your mind and forget about the irritating activist concept. And Zanele Muholi is so fun and pretty!
With this very politically correct show, Simon Baker, the Scottish director of MEP since 2018 and formerly at Tate Modern, surfs on the trendy wave of sexual identity. At MEP until May 21
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“Irritating activist concept”? Huh?