Read the audioguide to the Zanele Muholi: ZAZISE exhibition

Zanele Muholi: ZAZISE 
Finnish Museum of Photography's K1​


1. Muholi - Visual activist

Text: Caroline Suinner / Ruskeat Tytöt

Professor Sir Z. Muholi is a black South African non-binary visual activist who works in phases, whether discovering themself in countries around the globe or centering on the documentation of their native South Africa.

Muholi says that visual activism is a form of conscious political action, and that pride and protest require a concrete agenda.

Muholi has chosen visual activism as their medium because they are able to create imagery of people who believe in human equality and freedom. A repeated image in their work is of a person gazing directly into the camera, which arrests the viewer and the photographer alike in a sensitive state, which also reveals the creator of the photograph itself.

In monochrome and color alike, the choices of angle, gaze, everyday scenes, and strong contrasts are vital devices used by Muholi in their work.

Muholi makes invisible structures visible with their art, thereby bringing realities to wider consciousness that are unknown to the global mainstream. Muholi has said that they want to create change in racist and queer-phobic spaces, and to sway minds with their presentations. 

Muholi's work akso seeks to dismantle exclusion and invisibility. Who is in the picture, and why? Muholi does not pretend to be an objective outside observer or a neutral documentarian.

Instead, they define a viewpoint and a position from which to study various phenomena and photograph people. Muholi says it is especially important to find a connection to oneself, and the reasons we do what we do.


2. Context and gaze

Text: Fiona ‘Elone / Ruskeat Tytöt

Muholi's images are full of information and visual clues. They offer the opportunity to gain multi-layered understanding of the cruelly racist and queer-phobic reality that Muholi takes as their subject matter. For instance, the gaze of the outside other and the differing positions in power of the characters appearing in the photographs are in some of Muholi's pictures explicitly depicted.

One such work is "Massa and Minah II". In the photo, Muholi wears a maid's outfit while crouching in the background. In the forefront are two legs dressed in high heels, behind which Muholi is shown scrubbing the floor. Together with the title, it seems clear that the piece is applying thematics of class and race.

Another example of literal storytelling is "Being (T)here V". In it Muholi is shown standing, scantly clad in a showcase window lit with red lights. A fully dressed person in the street stands looking in through the window. The story appears to write itself, and the significance of the outside gaze is implicitly obvious.

But that gaze is not restricted to the figures in the picture. What if we observe the relationship between the art and our own personal gaze? Are we aware of the gaze of an outsider, that is our own? Do we understand that it is always present, staring, also as a more difficult to identify abstract element in all our interpretations as viewers of art?

Let us challenge ourselves as viewers to ask: What is my relationship to the topics in these pictures, and the narratives my own mind creates? Can I find something to connect with in these works, or do the figures seem alien? What sort of emotions am I feeling, and why? Are my interpretations the absolute truth, or just one option in a sea of others?

There are no right and wrong answers, only the opportunity to investigate and create deeper connections.


3. Visibility and dignity

Text: Caroline Suinner / Ruskeat Tytöt

The works "ZaVa I" and "ZaVa IV" depict intimate moments between two people. In the gentle monochrome photographs, Muholi themself is in the frame with another model, both of whom are posing naked or wrapped in bed coverings.

Muholi's catalogue includes several pictures that are imbued with this same sensitive, real, and everyday sense of reflection. Muholi has described themself as a gentle creature, and has said that one of their central motivations is to propagate tender imagery of queer love, to contrast with the constant violence and hate crime news. This, as Muholi says, is especially important precisely because this type of imagery does not yet exist.

Black and queer people have historically been represented in dehumanizing and demonizing ways. The conversation is further complicated when we speak of the intersections of these minority groups; where is the safe haven and the history?

Muholi says the need to photograph and document Black queer people is not necessarily to do with beauty, but with the need to be seen and heard.

Muholi also has a series called Faces and Phases, which has also been a key piece in their work. They have mentioned that their main ambition is for people to look good and feel fabulous. Consent is of utmost importance in all the photographs in the series. Muholi says the people in the images are participants, not objects. They are people who deserve to be in the visual canon, but who are excluded from it for political reasons.


4. Resonance and community

Text: Fiona ‘Elone / Ruskeat Tytöt

Muholi has said that their task is to rewrite the visual history of South Africa's Black queer population. Their work involves different methods and approaches: stylized self-portraits, where her fígure takes on multiple forms around the world; portraits of other members of the Black queer community in South Africa; and documentation of that community's significant events. In addition to their visual work, Muholi is committed to teaching and involving members of the community through means such as via a web portal they created for that purpose. 

Muholi's personal art is always in relation with the community and its needs, which are an organic component in all their work. Interviews with them balk from linear boudary-marking between art and activism, because they always speak of the big picture of the struggle for equality and the methodologies of anti-discrimination alongside their art

In identifying Muholi's artistship, the question arises: What kinds of pressures and restrictions may be created in response to answering the needs of a community? In their interview with the Tate Institute (In Conversation With Lady Phyll), Muholi brought up the issue of best practices when it comes to community outreach. A severe challenge to all their work is that there is no way to compare it to or model isi upon anything existing, because all similar documentation has previously been practiced from outside of the community, by "the other".

What kinds of meanings does Muholi's art gain or evoke in your eyes as the viewer, in relation to its broader context? Do these thoughts help with the discovery of new layers in your artistic experience? And do art and artistship take on different meanings when they answer both the personal calling of the individual as well as the needs of a marginalized community?


5. Somnyama Ngonyama 

Text: Caroline Suinner / Ruskeat Tytöt

The series Somnyama Ngonyama, or "Hail the dark lioness", was born from Muholi's need to find ways of dealing with painful experiences through art. True to Muholi's mission, the series is centered on the political nature of Black bodies. One aim of the series is to dismantle racism in the media and in public spaces.

The series is ongoing, and Muholi intends to expand it to include 365 documentary photographs where Muholi themself is attired in everyday, often synthetic items.

Monochrome palettes and exaggerated contrasts have caused discussion as aspects of the works, as has cultural exchange as a means to creating representation. In the various photographs, Muholi says they look like different members of their faimly; Somnyama is a documentation of family.

The photograph "Ntozakhe II, Parktown" is a tribute to Muholi's mother, who worked as a maid in a white family. The meaning may be created at the instant of recording, reliant on time and place, or leaning on historical events and moments.

In any case, the photographs are connected to crucial contemporary discourses; whose space, who is in charge? The images are born in flux, sometimes focusing on an item and sometimes on the subject.

The pictures may come with a feeling of familiarity to art-lovers, as they are identifiable by their clear parameters. They are timeless, and work as multidimensional and visual works of friction.


6. Political spaces

Text: Fiona ‘Elone / Ruskeat Tytöt

Muholi's visual activism is conscious political work, in response to conscious political exclusion. We seek and find meanings in the photographs themselves, but to comprehend their purpose we must turn our attention away from them, too, such as toward the spaces where they are exhibited.

"To be honest, we don't have many of us in these spaces," Muholi has said, referring to how the Black queer people in her photographs, in response to whose needs the work has emerged, are hardly to be found in the physical exhibitions spaces themselves. Muholi mentions this as a challenge in selecting collaborators.

The museum space is opened up to discussion through Muholi's work, who says it is crucial that we hear what people have to say, instead of saying things we think others want to hear.

The Faces and Phases? series has also brought Muholi to the following question: Is it more important to use resources to invite the community members in the photographs to engage in discussions that are usually absent from many public spaces, or to pay them a fee for their work?

In Muholi's spirit, we might stop to think about questions such as: Who is able to access the spaces where Muholi's art is exhibited? What barriers, concrete and/or social, may be preventing someone from entering? Who would benefit the most from seeing this exhibition? Are the answers in line? Why?


Kämp Galleria
Mikonkatu 1, 00100 Helsinki
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The Cable Factory
Kaapeliaukio 3, staircase G, 00180 Helsinki
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Tue–Sun 11 am. – 6 pm. Wed 11 am – 8 pm
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Under 18 y.o. free admission