Zanele Muholi

Flesh II

2005

In Tate Liverpool
Artist
Zanele Muholi born 1972
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 600 x 446 mm
support, secondary: 699 x 545 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by Wendy Fisher 2015
Reference
P81294

Summary

This is one of a group of six gelatin silver prints in Tate’s collection from Zanele Muholi’s series Only Half the Picture 2003–6 (Tate P81289P81294). The series, which exists in an edition of eight with one artist’s proof, dates from an early moment in Muholi’s career; it was foundational for much of her later practice which confronts stereotypes and taboos surrounding black female same-sex practices. Muholi trained at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, an organisation founded in 1989 by South African photographer David Goldblatt (1930–2018) to ensure that visual literacy reached neglected and marginalised parts of South African society. Muholi’s first-hand knowledge of the LGBTI community ensures a level of trust between photographer and subject that lends her work an intimate perspective on the challenges facing black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in South Africa.

ID Crisis 2003 (Tate P81289) shows a slim young woman standing in a gloomy room carefully wrapping bandages around her breasts in an attempt to disguise her anatomy, as light streams in from an adjacent window. Bra 2003 (Tate P81290) is a tightly framed image of a larger person’s torso, the focus of the image being on a hairy chest and white lace bra. Aftermath 2004 (Tate P81291) presents the lower torso and legs of a person wearing baggy underwear; a long, wide scar from a deep wound is visible on the figure’s right upper thigh, the title alluding to some incident or trauma that led to the scarring. Ordeal 2003 (Tate P81292) is a close-up shot of a person hunched over an enamel bowl containing water, wringing out a cloth. The suggestion, made explicit by the title, is that the person is washing him or herself after a traumatic event. In-security 2003 (Tate P81293) shows the body of what appears to be a female security guard, from the waist down, wearing a uniform and heavy army-style lace-up boots. The figure’s arms are crossed in a defensive stance and the trousers sit awkwardly around the woman’s genital area. Flesh II 2005 (Tate P81294) is a shot of a voluptuous woman washing herself in a bath. The woman’s body fills the bathtub and is seemingly squeezed into the frame of the photograph.

In each of these photographs the subject’s head is either totally or partially cropped out of the image. The images are intimate, close-up and respectful. The focus is on the full variety of bodies, their postures and actions; beauty, suffering and pleasure co-exist in these photographs. The identities of the subjects are concealed and their dignity and privacy left intact. In this series Muholi’s focus is thus less on the individual and more on the collective experience. She adopted a different approach in later series, such as the ongoing Faces and Phases, inviting her subjects to look directly at the camera, challenging the viewer to look back at them, and titling each image with the name of the subject. In the Only Half the Picture series, the individual titles of the photographs allude to the subject’s vulnerabilities and expose the difficulties black lesbians face in a society that frequently proclaims homosexual practices as alien to African culture.

Muholi has said of her work: ‘I have seen people speaking and capturing images of lesbians on our behalf, as if we are incapable and mute. I have witnessed this at Gay Pride events, at academic conferences, in the so-called women’s movement forums … I refused to become subject matter for others and to be silenced.’ (Quoted in interview by Gabi Ngcobo, Artthrob 2006, http://www.artthrob.co.za/06dec/artbio.html, accessed August 2013.) According to the South African academic Gabeba Baderoon, Muholi’s ‘photographs have helped to reframe ways of seeing the Black body, and have brought details of Black lesbian and gay life closer to the centre of South Africa’s political and artistic debates’ (Gabeba Baderoon, in Mario Pissarra, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Mandisi Majavu (eds.), Visual Century: South African Art in Context Volume 4: 1990–2007, Johannesburg 2011, p.85). Muholi has led the way for other young women photographers working in Africa to challenge the way in which the black female body has been presented historically in documentary photography.

Further reading
Zanele Muholi, Only Half the Picture, Johannesburg 2006.
Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases, Munich 2010.
Zanele Muholi, Zanele Muholi: African Women Photographers #1, Madrid 2011.

Kerryn Greenberg
August 2013

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