Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases turns 10


zanele-muholis-faces-and-phases-turns-10A new exhibition is celebrating Zanele Muholi’s remarkable Faces and Phases series of photographic portraits, spanning 10 years and more than 250 black lesbians and transgender individuals from South Africa and beyond.

The exhibition opens at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg on 15 September, two days after South Africa marks a decade since the introduction of the Civil Union Bill in the National Assembly, which legalised same-sex marriage.

Muholi, an emerging artist at the time, was tired of sitting around while her community remained undocumented; absent from visual history. This drove her to pick up a camera and take that first image of Busi Sigasa at Constitution Hill. Some of the early participants featured in this exhibition were members of the Chosen FEW soccer team that travelled with Muholi to the Chicago Gay Games in 2006.

This internationally-award-winning photographer is now throwing her energy and focus into producing follow up shots of her participants as they go through new phases in their lives.

“The journey has been long and hard, all participants are history makers who are [today] positioned differently in politics, economy and society,” said Muholi.

Thinking about how Faces and Phases has reached a decade, in the same year in which our country commemorates 60 years since the iconic 1956 women’s march, leads to many questions for Muholi.

“We are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those women who marched to the Union Building to challenge an unjust system. Were there lesbian women among that crowd? What narrative would they share with us today?” she asks.

Muholi admits that working on this series has been exhausting; emotionally, physically and financially, but acknowledges that an archive of this magnitude is not built overnight. The photographer is humbled by the participants who have taken risks by sharing their time and faces, despite coming from repressive African countries. The series not only celebrates women, but also diversity by being conscious and mindful of those who continue to go through gender transition.

Faces and Phases has also brought joy and fulfilment to Muholi and she remains committed to growing the series. “People continue to progress in their personal lives and this series has produced new photographers,” says Muholi. In reflecting about the past ten years, this KwaZulu-Natal born artist is proud of the work she’s producing: “It is the only project in Africa of its kind. It is a success, milestone and record breaker.”

In 2006, Muholi said of her then-new venture:

Faces and Phases is an insider’s perspective that both commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers I have met in my journeys. Some of their stories gave me sleepless nights as I tried to process the struggles that were told to me. Many of the women I met had been violated and I endeavoured not to exploit them further through my work. I set out to establish relationships with them based on a mutual understanding of what it means to be female, lesbian and black today. Faces and Phases is about our histories and the struggles that we continue to face.”

These words continue to hold true. By exhibiting the initial portraits alongside those taken more recently, this celebration will map the trajectory of each individual’s growth, highlighting the fact that they are participants – not subjects. Muholi will also be introducing the audience to new participants through never before seen images.

Faces and Phases10 open at the Stevenson Gallery (62 Juta Street, Braamfontein) on Thursday 15 September (6 to 8pm) and runs until 14 October.

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  1. mary muthui
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