A South African photographer offers riveting portraits of LGBT individuals. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A South African photographer offers riveting portraits of LGBT individuals.

Faces and Phases is a brilliant exercise of artistry and activism.

Zanele Muholi's "Gazi T Zuma, Umlazi, Durban."
Zanele Muholi's "Gazi T Zuma, Umlazi, Durban."

South African photographer Zanele Muholi has been awarded the Fine Prize (a more recent, well-conceived complement to the longstanding Carnegie Prize), created to "honor an emerging artist in the Carnegie International." A native of South Africa, Muholi travelled to Toronto for an MFA from Ryerson University before returning to Johannesburg, where she lives and works. With 10 years' worth of accomplishments behind her — including awards, solo exhibits and residencies in Johannesburg, Lagos and New York City, and at MIT — you might think Muholi had already emerged, but these things are relative.

The awards jury selected Muholi for the Fine Prize on the basis of her project Faces and Phases (2007-13), which is represented in the International by 48 black-and-white photographic portraits of primarily African LGBTI individuals. (The "I" is for intersex.) Muholi is a portrait photographer of great skill and sensitivity, and each of these portraits accomplishes what a portrait is capable of: showing us a moment in the life of a unique individual with a history and feelings.

That sense of individuality is heightened by Muholi's use of a variety of poses in terms of bodily position and length (head and shoulders, half-length, etc.), along with nuances of lighting (flattering but not obsequious in the manner of commercial photographic portraits) and backgrounds that are highly varied yet never incongruous. In "Gazi T Zuma, Umlazi, Durban," the subject's humanity is conveyed through a complex facial expression and body language, including elements of what I read as guardedness and anger.

While each portrait can stand alone, four dozen of them add up to something more — a cross-section, a community, a front — potentially capable of shifting a viewer's perspective. Self-described as a "visual activist," Muholi aims to "redefin[e] the face of Africa" through photography and film, and Faces and Phases gives visibility to black LGBTI communities, which is essential to the pursuit of justice; Muholi is particularly committed to fighting the violence against LGBTI people that's prevalent in regions of South Africa. As a grid of portraits installed on each side of a black wall — one of many successes of exhibition design in this Carnegie International, curated by Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers and Tina Kukielski — Faces and Phases is a brilliant exercise of artistry and activism, each portrait confronting us with poise and dignity.

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