The ensemble has traveled to New York with Muholi as part of the series of programs for Performa 17, the visual arts performance biennial. Most of the members of the entourage belong to the country’s LGBTQI+ community that Muholi has dedicated her life to documenting—Sifiso Candice Nkosi, for example, a performer who also functions as the group’s makeup artist, was documented for Muholi’s ongoing Brave Beauties project, which documents black transgender women and gay men in South Africa; or Andiswa Dlamini, a poet and writer who performed a series of “enchantments” for some of the spaces the programs have taken place in, who was featured in Faces and Phases, a project consisting of hundreds of portraits of the country’s lesbian community.
Ever since Muholi—who does not call herself an artist—completed her course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2003, she has worked relentlessly to document her community. Faces and Phases, for example, resulted in a namesake book that showed the photos alongside stories highlighting the risks of living among homophobia. The project Brave Beauties follows a similar aim, documenting—and celebrating—black transgender women and gender non-conforming persons in South Africa. Muholi works in the paradox that spans South Africa’s attitude towards gender and sexual orientation: Despite being the first country in the world to incorporate LGBTQ–protections in its constitution, in 1996, and being the only country in Africa to recognize same-sex marriage, since 2006, violence and harassment, including “corrective rape,” are still rampant. Muholi has recorded many of these hate crimes, part of which have fed into Inkanyiso—Zulu for “the one who brings light”—the multimedia platform she founded in 2009 to create a “visual history” of the community.
Beginning in 2014, Muholi turned the camera on herself, starting a series of black and white self-portraits titled Somnyama Ngonyama—Zulu for “Hail, the Dark Lioness.” The images consciously call up stereotypes of blackness, the heightened contrasts of the photographs glossing up Muholi’s skin, her hair braided in elaborate styles that are at once majestic and banal. Everyday materials become props and costumes, with a set of bicycle tires turned into a majestic shawl, a set of washing sponges reimagined as a wig. For Muholi, these images aim to insert black bodies in spaces that have traditionally excluded them, though they also serve a more personal, almost therapeutic, purpose. Each title mentions the location at which the photo is taken, becoming a diary of both Muholi’s extensive traveling and of the many places where black bodies are still unwelcome. “In America, Europe, Africa, the experience is never the same. But that judgment, that discrimination, that lingering sense that you are not supposed to be here persists, having to continually justify your presence,” she said in an interview with Autograph ABP this year. One of the photos, titled Dalisu, New York, 2016, came out of a bad experience at a New York hotel in 2016. It shows Muholi’s face framed by strings of brown wool, as if her presence is literally blending in with the interior of the room.
One of the questions that Muholi’s work raises is, if the photographs make use of the exact same stereotypes of blackness they’re meant to disarm, then, is there a danger that displaying such images in a gallery might reinforce them too? And, by extension, if such white spaces have excluded those of color, then should artists of color even aim to work in the system that oppresses them? “How we challenge whiteness, if we’re scared to access the spaces given to us?” Muholi asks me in return, continuing to describe her approach as very “practical.” “We can talk about white walls, but there are no black walls, and the black walls don’t have resources. So if there’s a space that is open to me, I give it to all of us.”
The “us” Muholi is referencing includes the 23-man ensemble that has traveled with her to New York. The group, consisting of performers, dancers, singers, poets, but also of a gynecologist who functions as the group’s doctor, have flown in together and, for the duration of the events, share a communal house in Brooklyn. (Dr. Mpume Simelane’s presence follows an operation Muholi received at the end of last year, though she also mentioned a shocking incident in Amsterdam, in which one of Muholi’s then–team members was pushed off of the stairs by a white Airbnb host who also made disparaging remarks.) In the art world, where many budgets are tight and organizational structures—even at top institutions—can be pressured, it is nothing short of exceptional to see Muholi lead such expeditions (though the photographer often travels with people, this is one of the biggest groups until now). For her, bringing those from her community to share the stage—especially those who have dedicated their time and faces to the projects—is part of the work, no matter the logistical limits. “I earn, therefore I had to bring the people,” Muholi says, telling me that she had to cover part of the costs out of her own pocket, beyond what Performa could provide. “We share the budget, we are in Brooklyn, we share a space there. That’s okay—that’s how we live at home.” Performa founding director RoseLee Goldberg confirmed to me that Muholi was adamant on bringing a group from the very beginning, though it wasn’t yet clear then that it would be such a big ensemble. “We took care of what we could do, but [Muholi] has this heart that is bigger than anyone, and as she says, this is her way of dealing with the issues she’s dealing with,” Goldberg tells me on the phone. “Seeing them around New York City is such a thrill, it’s like they’re carrying a part of South Africa with them.”
Choreographer, dancer, and performance artist Tandile Mbatsha, who met Muholi earlier this year when they—the pronoun Mbatsha uses—inspired by the work, started performing spontaneously at one of her shows in Cape Town, South Africa. Mbatsha says they’re grateful to the photographer for the opportunity. “Where I come from, this kind of work is not very popular,” they say, referring to their decision to perform in alternative spaces instead of under a proscenium arch. For Nkosi, the makeup artist, the experience extends beyond the work. “She’s not just training us, she’s also teaching us discipline, self-respect, being fully equipped, and how to live as a person.” She continued, “We’re from different family backgrounds—some of us are orphans—so it’s also about having a family that we can call our own.”
Tracing the group’s performances, which have touched down on spaces ranging from the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art to the Stonewall Inn and Public Arts, the ensemble’s celebratory mix of song, dance, and spoken word emphasizes that Muholi’s work, beyond catalyzing the fight, also spreads joy. The same could be said for the Brave Beauties portraits, in which the subjects smile, flirt, and provoke. Or, what could be seen in Muholi’s recent show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which included a video showing an elaborate same-sex wedding. “Weddings are weddings, and people have been getting married even before it was legalized,” Muholi tells me. “I don’t want to always present tragedy from South Africa. I want to show things that are joyous, that makes a person who might have thought of the jungle think of something else.”
As of writing, the ensemble is getting ready for their “grand finale” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a culmination of the two weeks of meeting, performing, and living together with a 23-man group in which many met for the first time on their flight into New York. Speaking on the Schomburg stage, Muholi elaborated on the group effort behind her process: “Here in America you call it FUBU: for us, by us. For me, it’s possible because I have people that I trust and feel safe with in their presence.” Later on, Muholi compared the group to a “national squad,” not unlike a soccer team. That description sounds about right, though not because of its nationalistic associations, but because any soccer team, no matter the fame of its star players, relies on the joint strength of everyone in the field.