In a world where conforming is the norm and sexual and gender orientation is boxed into narrowed binaries, the LGBTI community continually dismantles these labels. Held at Stevenson Gallery Johannesburg, Faces and Phases 10 celebrates the 10-year anniversary of Muholi’s acclaimed portrait series, an extraordinary and unprecedented archive of over 250 portraits of Muholi’s LGBTI and queer community in South Africa.
The 10-year anniversary goes beyond a celebration of the body of work but becomes a celebration of the participant’s lives and a memorial to those that have passed on. Through the images, the participant’s presence is cemented and confirmed in a world that has previously erased or ignored their plight and needs. The body of work began with the portrait of the late Busi Sigasa, a close friend of Muholi, who succumbed to a targeted attack as a result of her sexual orientation. Her memory lives on through her portrait as it does through her poem, ‘Remember me when I’m gone.’
Started in 2006, Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases project boldly captures portraits of the black LGBTI community. 2006 was the same year South Africa legalized same-sex marriages and remains the only country in the continent that acknowledges and accommodates the LGBTI community. It was fitting that Muholi began this extraordinary project this year, as it was a way to highlight how much work still needed and remains to be done. Despite the legalizing of same-sex marriages, the LGBTI community still faces grave and brutal hate crimes and corrective-rape.
The project was initiated to fill a gap in South Africa’s visual history and to unapologetically map and preserve an often invisible community. Among the poignant photographs, is Muholi’s own portrait through which she turns the camera on herself and captures her personal involvement and commitment to the LGBTI community. By doing this, Muholi’s presence in the community is archived and documented and her work become inseparable from her own history.
The portraits capture a direct and confrontational gaze that confronts the viewer. They are printed in large, black and white formats and make the power of visibility of the LGBTI community and black queerness apparent. Additionally, each portrait displays the individual’s diverse personal aesthetic and moves away from boxing participant’s gender into binary categories. The success of Faces and Phases lies in its ability to rid itself of stereotypical, binary and fixed notion of identity, sexual, and gender orientation. Fixed identities work at excluding those who do not adhere to the constructed norm and Muholi makes it a point to make visible the vast spectrum of black queer and transgender bodies.
The exhibition, held at Stevenson Johannesburg new gallery space, juxtaposes Muholi’s initial portraits with her most recent portraits taken of the same individuals. This comparison of phases and laps of time shows the growth, not only in the project itself, but in the individuals that stand in front of Muholi’s lens. Muholi makes a point to and is conscious of finding a history in which she and the LGBTI community can claim part. This allows her to envision the future, in which black queer and transgender people’s stories and lives are memorialized. She creates work that simultaneously embodies a visual past and a gesture towards the future. The juxtaposition of old and new portraits brings to life the title, Faces and Phases and poignantly makes evidence the dynamic variables humans have. The term Faces expresses the person’s physicality and the face-to-face confrontation between Muholi as photographer/activist and her participants, the many lesbians and trans individuals she engages with in various spaces. The term Phases, on the other hand, speaks to the organic history through which the participants and their engagement with Muholi passes. The project explores the whole and in-betweenness and as a living archive, the work simultaneously mourns and celebrates the lives of an often forgotten and marginalized community. The space is filled wall to wall with strong black and white photographs and one video installation. One wall breaks the back to back installation by having gaps between the photographs. These spaces speak to the nameless and deceased individuals who are victims of corrective rape and violent attacks.
Not included in the installation, are the firsthand accounts of the participants that usually accompany the portraits. These deeply personal statements speak to the experience of living through targeted violence in a country that constitutionally protects the rights of LGBTI people but that simultaneously fails to defend and protect them. The first-person testimonies reflect the impact of homophobia, discrimination and violence and become an important force in highlighting, personalizing and humanizing LGBTI activism.
Highly political and deeply personal, Zanele Muholi does an extraordinary job of unpacking and transgressing oppressive sexual, gender and racial boundaries that are woven into the fabric of the South African society. The work confronts viewers with the continued struggle of accepting sexual orientation of vast difference from diverse contexts and convey complexity and fluidity. The images are dense with visual history and it is through this that one become absorbed within them.
The ongoing photographic project is accompanied by a publication, titled Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases 2006-2014, that marks the moment in history where LGBTI people’s lives are documented and serves as a bible that will educate those who refuse to acknowledge the community’s existence. Additionally, the book carves a way to remind the world that no body deserves to be rebuked because of the gender and sexual orientation and difference. It documents the individuals who are shaping a South African visual history in ways that were never done in our 22 years of democracy by giving a voice to those who have been persecuted.