South African photographer (and self-titled visual activist) Zanele Muholi has gained international recognition for her direct, powerful imagery. Muholi devoted years to a body of work called Faces and Phases (2006-2016), in which she directed her camera towards members of the black lesbian and trans community in South Africa. Muholi has exposed herself to innumerable acts of aggression and violence during the course of her career. Despite this, she continues to pursue her work, in part to insist on a visual history and visibility for members of her long-overlooked community.
Lately, however, self-portraiture—approached in the past with series such as “Miss (Black) Lesbian” and “Massa and Minah”—has taken on new prominence in the artist’s work.
With her newest set of self-portraits, Muholi meddles with the viewer’s expectations and assumptions. Self-aware and interrogative, the portraits are serious reflections on the genre and her place in it. As Muholi dons different clothing and accessories, she slips into different facets of the characters she creates. Witnessing this kind of self-portraiture is uncomfortable in its intimacy. Muholi is probing the depths within, an intense process that elicits a range of raw emotions both for herself and the viewer.
Looking at the image below, we at first see only decorative clothing and adornments. On closer inspection, however, the jagged objects crowning her head come into focus: they are clothespins. The elaborate, woven fabric on her body is, in reality, a doormat. Here, and across this bold new work, Muholi knows what we expect—and intentionally topples our predictions at every turn.
Below, she offers a few words to LensCulture readers about this photograph, which she selected as one of her favorites in the series.
This self-portrait is a special tribute to my late mother who passed on in 2009. She worked as a domestic worker for 42 years and was forced to retire due to ill health. After retirement she never lived long enough to enjoy her life at home with her family and grandchildren.
This photo is also a dedication to all the domestic workers around the globe who are able to fend for their families despite meagre salaries and make ends meet.
With this image I looked at how different people can use the materials of daily life for multiple purposes. The pegs lend an unexpected aesthetic to this photo and allow it to be read differently in the fashion world; the same goes for the striped mat. The pegs themselves can be seen as functional art in this regard. The striped doormat can also be used as shawl, but in this case it was meant for something else.
What people call a prop, I call material. The viewer is forced to rethink how they think about the materials—and their history.
I looked directly at the camera in order to create a sense of questioning or confrontation which could be read by viewers in different ways.
—Zanele Muholi, March 2017