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Faces and Phases 13

Zanele Muholi’s New Exhibition opens in Johannesburg

The thirteenth edition of photographer Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases series is currently on view at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg. The exhibition coincides with the visual activist’s birthday month, and the 13th anniversary of this ongoing series. This new exhibition aims to highlight the long-term relationships that have been nurtured through this series, foregrounding the beauty of the participants and the importance of archiving their presence. Created as a means to ensure the visibility of black lesbian and transgender communities, the series addresses the lack of visual history for black LGBTQIA+ people within the South African queer canon and draws attention to the brutal hate crimes that continue to plague South Africa today.

Faces and Phases was born in 2006, 10 years after the new South African constitution effectively decriminalised homosexuality, and months before the legalisation of same-sex marriage in South Africa. The project grew out of recognition of a lack of black queer visibility, and the Faces and Phases series has grown into a living archive of black and white photographic portraits of more than 500 lesbians, gender-nonconforming individuals and trans men in various expressions of their sexuality and gender identity. The first Faces and Phases portrait of Busi Sigasa was captured at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, where many activists who fought against apartheid were incarcerated. Since that first image, Muholi has photographed subjects in different parts of South Africa and neighbouring African countries, as well as in Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In 2019, Faces and Phases 13 embraces a reflective stance to honour some of the milestones reached by this activist project, while acknowledging the long road ahead before full emancipation may be achieved, including the total eradication of hate crimes against members of the LGBTQIA+ communities. The project visually lobbies for the inclusion of and non-discrimination against LGBTQIA+ individuals in economic, academic, social and other spheres of society. 

Between 2007 and 2009, Muholi was based in Toronto, Canada, studying for a Master’s degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University. Her thesis mapped the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-apartheid South Africa. As visual activism has become global, Muholi has invited various people to participate in events internationally, beginning with the Gay Games in Chicago in 2006, and leading on to other sport events, Pride celebrations, exhibitions, photography workshops, residencies, performances, film festivals, award ceremonies and other cultural experiences in various parts of the USA, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Norway, Netherlands, France, Lesotho, Uganda, Benin and Botswana.

Zanele Muholi

The past 13 years have allowed Muholi’s visual activism to develop its own path and find wide-reaching success, and yet its milestones have been countered by the flaws that continue to exist in our society. HIV/AIDS, mental health problems and various chronic illnesses have claimed the lives of six participants since their first portraits were captured for Faces and Phases. This loss highlights the inequalities that persist in South Africa, often preventing ‘ordinary’ citizens from accessing basic quality healthcare. It painfully demonstrates that not everyone can claim their full constitutional rights in a country that prides itself on having one of the best constitutions in the world.

The Faces and Phases series has been shown at the South African Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013), dOCUMENTA 13 (2012), and the 29th São Paulo Biennial (2010). Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases 2006-14, published by Steidl and the Walther Collection, was shortlisted for the 2015 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize; a second volume is to be published in 2020. The series will form part of Muholi’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, London from 29 April to 18 October 2020. 

See this fascinating exhibition at Stevenson Gallery, 46 7th Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg, until 30 August. Opening hours: 

Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Saturday 10am to 1pm