Zanele Muholi – what don’t you see when you look at me?


The central theme of Zanele Muholi’s work is the representation of black women’s bodies. An extremely intimate portrayal that breaks with the typical collective imagination of documentary photography and with stereotyped narrations.
ID Crisis, Aftermath and Dada, three photographs in the series Only half the picture, made a stir in her own country because this type of depiction of women is unprecedented in South Africa.
It’s a kind of visual denunciation arising from the need to recount and document the lives of black lesbians in the communities that Muholi has frequented. A desire to give voice to those who are normally marginalized, forced into isolation. In her work, concentrating on the theme of sexual identity, Muholi underscores the difficulties that each individual generally encounters in building up their own identity.
Homophobia remains one of the most dramatic problems in South Africa: almost every day violence is perpetrated on people, not only women, guilty of having made a different sexual choice. The grotesque, declared pretext is to teach them a lesson, to put them back on the right road.
For the video What…?, Zanele Muholi draws inspiration from Sherene Razack’s essay When Place Becomes Race, which examines the importance of the space/identity relationship and the persistent dubiousness with which a black woman’s body is perceived in a westernised, Europeanised and globalised context, as for example in the « white cube » of an art gallery.
The artist uses her own body as a means of expression, she recites the Yvonne Onakeme EtagheneI poem I ache for you, she plays with symbolic objects such as feathers, rubber tyres and sausages, holding our gaze from the screen in a provocative way: « are you sure that within yourselves there isn’t some residue of prejudice about a black body as hypersexual, heterosexual, maybe infected and a source of contagion? »