Comments/Context: Zanele Muholi's black and white portraits of individuals from the black lesbian and transgender communities in South Africa and neighboring countries are bold and powerful. Hung tightly together in a parade of three quarter poses, her images celebrate a group of people who have seen hardships, been misunderstood or overlooked, and have endured outright persecution. Each photograph brims with simmering intensity and authentic connection, and together they leave a memorable impression.
While close cropped hair and androgynous clothing are common to many of these portraits, the faces reveal emotions and mindsets that cover a wide spectrum. Some sitters have a steely swagger, full of confidence, measuring the viewer in the event of a confrontation. Other subjects are more guarded and wary, with arms folded, waiting for the all too common judgment with reserve and trepidation. And still others radiate quiet curiosity and warmth, genuinely open and welcoming. Muholi has found the strength and beauty in every single sitter, engaging each one with directness and honesty.
Compositionally, Muholi has been careful with pattern and tonality, using contrasts of skin tone and background to create visual interest. Details like a razor blade necklace, a sweep of hair, or a bow tie help provide clues to personalities, while whitewashed cinder blocks and dress motifs add surrounding context. But in the end, it is the parade of unrelenting faces that gathers your gaze. Again and again, she presents the eyes of engaging individuals, respectfully allowing us to look right into their hopes and sorrows. It's photographic portraiture done with consistently exceptional grace and humility, a bravura performance of attention and observation.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
- Artist site (here)
- Feature/Reviews: New Yorker (here), Time LightBox (here), New Yorker PhotoBooth (here), NY Times Lens (here)
Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases
Through April 6th
Yancey Richardson Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011