Visual activist Zanele Muholi, who hails from Umlazi in KwaZulu-Natal, is officially the most powerful female artist in Africa, according to ArtReview magazine’s annual Power 100 list of influencers in the contemporary art world.
Muholi, who made it on the list at position 95, joins big names such as Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor (at number 20) and South African artist William Kentridge at position 62.
ArtReview describes Muholi as a “Johannesburg-based photographer, film maker and self-titled ‘visual activist’ at the forefront of both celebrating the existence of, and campaigning against the violence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities in her native South Africa and beyond”.
The awards, now in their 15th year, work with 20 international judges to consider sales figures, exhibition numbers, media reports and social media influences, so that the impact of the globe’s biggest art personalities can be determined. The list consists of predominantly white artists, but, as ArtReview notes, “art-world power changes hands slowly, like the art world itself” – adding that “Muholi is making sure her message is being heard”.
At the opening of her latest exhibition in Johannesburg last month, Muholi spoke about the significance of her work Faces and Phases – a series of photographic portraits documenting mainly black lesbian and transgender individuals – 10 years after it first premiered.
“The point is to photograph people who take pride in who they are. This is political. I do not want people to look clumsy or ugly, like the projections that were made of Africans by the colonisers.
"I want people to look superneat. That self-loving projection is key. When I photograph someone for the series I say: ‘Please look good. We are all going through pain and challenges, but please do not project it now. There will be time for that.’”
Kentridge, who went up the ranks this year by 19 places, is commended by the panel, who say: “The South African artist’s intelligent multidisciplinary works – drawing, animation, books, tapestry, music, theatre, dance, opera and a healthy dose of silent-movie slapstick exploring philosophy, art history, science and politics – continue to be in international demand.”
Topping the list for the second time in a row is Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Known as the “curator who never sleeps”, Obrist is said to be the most powerful person in contemporary art, with a nod from him on an exhibition programme or on his infamous Instagram page enough to start – and, at times, end – an artist’s career.