Review: Zanele Muholi: VUKANI/RISE at Open Eye

Nathi Dlamini at the After Tears of Muntu Masombuka's funeral, 2013 (detail) Photograph: © Zanele Muholi
Nathi Dlamini at the After Tears of Muntu Masombuka's funeral, 2013 (detail) Photograph: © Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi: VUKANI/RISE
at Open Eye Gallery. Friday 18 September – Sunday 29 November 2015

Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith.

Open Eye’s current exhibition, VUKANI/RISE, is an incredibly concise history and celebration of black LGBT history. The exhibition has a focus on South Africa, but a much broader impact. This show is the work of rising star of photographic activism, Zanele Muholi, and exhibits four of her most important projects as part of Homotopia 2015.

The first room we are confronted with is Faces and Phases, a photography installation completely void of colour, limiting the ways we can interpret the photographs. This leaves us with a room of images that don’t catch our focus. If we want to choose one to spend our time with we have to make the effort to look at every single picture, and consider each individual subject. It is a time consuming exhibition for the viewer by nature, showing a huge amount of information in a small space.

Walking through the show it feels as though an injustice has been done to every person sitting for these portraits, not having a room to themselves, but this is the result of Muholi’s intentions; to show the scale of this community. Her crucial skill, though, is in her ability to show such a massive collection of people, and still have us wondering about their individual stories. Stories she has told in more detail through an exhaustive publication, Faces + Phases 2006-14, which joins these portraits with the tales and testimonies of the people they portray.

There is an absoluteness to this exhibition, from Faces and Phases to the much more intimate self-portraits of ZaVa, which shows Muholi’s dedication to her subject and explains to the viewer who she is too – something we need to understand before truly understanding the work. Muholi’s partner is part of the intimate ZaVa and could almost defy the ideas of the exhibition, but actually helps us remember that these are photographs of people, whoever they may be. Those people happen to be black LGBT people, but as a rule, that should not define them. These themes are given generous explanations in the exhibition publication, which provides visitors with incredibly forthcoming essays and information.

Perhaps the boldest of the four projects on display at Open Eye is Brave Beauties, a portrayal of twelve gay and transgender men. These photographs seem to extend beyond portraiture and seem to have a sense of vanity, or display. They show off the personality the subjects want displayed and give us an incredible view into their psyches; something that hits us each time we move to the next portrait. In this series, photographs maintain their individuality, in stark contrast to the other works in the show.

This is all supported brilliantly by a powerfully emotive documentary film made up of interviews with her ever growing cast of subjects. Thanks to this film the exhibition is a wonderful tapestry of history and personality, which delivers access to a community most would barely even consider.

You can download an information pack with more details here