Muholi, who is a lesbian, doesn’t identify as an artist but rather as a “visual activist.” She’s best known for her ongoing series “Faces and Phases,” which began, in 2006, as a visual record of South Africa’s L.G.B.T. community. Muholi photographed herself as part of that series to emphasize, as she told me when I interviewed her in 2015, that “I’m one of us, I’m not observing from a distance.” Such solidary is essential: despite South Africa being the first country in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage, homophobia remains rampant there, and “Faces” includes portraits of women who have survived the heinous practice of “corrective” rape. In 2010, South Africa’s minister of arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana, denounced an exhibition of Muholi’s because it included images of lesbian couples in intimate poses that Xingwana deemed "immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.”
In comparison to the matter-of-fact, if empathic, documentary style of “Faces and Phases,” there is a fever-dream urgency to the self-portraits in “Somnyama Ngonyama.” In almost every picture, Muholi gazes unflinchingly at the lens as if it were a mirror, wresting her identity from every gaze except for her own. She started the project in 2014, and will continue until she has three hundred and sixty-five pictures—to symbolize a year—intertwining allusions to history and her own life. In “Julile I,” she reclines in the pose favored by nineteenth-century photographers, an odalisque, a word that quite literally means female slave. But there’s more than a critique of art history at play here: the inflated bags that Muholi is clutching refer to masses that were removed from her body during life-threatening surgery. It’s a keystone for the entire project, a woman embracing a history of pain and transforming it into freedom.