Of their images, Muholi has noted, “This is not art, this is life; each and every photo is someone’s biography.” This statement sums up the entirety of their series Faces and Phases, begun in 2006 and continuing today. Here, Muholi captures the lives of the black queer community in South Africa, having photographed over two hundred individuals to date. Each portrait in Faces and Phases acts as a personal biography of a person in this community, many of whom are friends of the artist. Some of these individuals have experienced violence due to their sexuality, including as victims of “corrective rape.” Muholi’s work is a form of visual activism for this community, as they notes, “I wanted to fill a gap in South Africa’s visual history that, even 10 years after the fall of apartheid, wholly excluded our very existence.” Through these photographs, Muholi not only attempts to bring visibility to the marginalized, but they also endeavors to lessen the stigma surrounding the LGBT community in South Africa and lessen the continued preponderance of hate crimes against homosexuals therein.
Each of these three images is stunning in their own right, with the personality of each sitter shining through. Muholi works with their subjects to craft the image, either in a studio setting or in the “wild,” allowing each person to choose their wardrobe, stance, and position. Some, like Bongiwe ‘Twana’ Kunene, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012 present a sitter whose gaze is more confrontational; in comparison, Mbali Zulu, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg, 2010 and Amanda Mapuma, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011 are thoughtful and more vulnerable. The artist’s choice to use only black-and-white images quite purposeful, as it was done to “create a sense of timelessness—a sense that we’ve been here before, but we’re looking at human beings who have never before had an opportunity to be seen.” They note clearly, too, that their work does not represent the black queer community of other African countries, but just their native South Africa. With this series, they give voices to the voiceless in South Africa. The portraits are forms of activism, gestures of defiance and the hope of self-acceptance by society.