Exhibitions and artistic appropriation
I'm so so happy that things are opening up again. At long last, I was able to get back into the gallery spaces that I've been missing ever since March 2020. All the things I took for granted in the time BC (Before Covid)! I picture myself almost as one of these awful people that the White Pube took the piss out of- the middle class, white lady clambering over the gate of the Tate, desperate for some culture. I'm not saying I had it too bad but damn, I missed galleries.
The first one I saw this year was the Zanele Muholi at the Tate modern and my days it confirmed that my missing of gallery spaces was just. What an exhibition. It was everything that I wanted to see.
Obviously it was just powerful and amazing that Muholi has been able to tell queer stories and represent queer, black, trans people from the inside. It was just so noticeable that these were empowering, positive, honest portrayals of people. They were not taken by or set up to appease the straight, white, male gaze. And although it's kindof obvious, I honestly couldn't remember another time seeing such a big exhibition that didn't do that.
The exhibition covered so many topics and styles of photography. Probably my favourites were the self portraits. There was such a depth of symbolism in each of them, about race, class, tribal traditions, Apartheid moments, that I felt that the captions by each one could not explain enough to me. I definitely left with more questions than I entered with but it encouraged me to discuss it further and research more.
Muholi is such a big artist that they hadn't even put the Tate exhibition on their Instagram by the time I searched for them. The Tate? No big deal. I am ashamed to say that I only discovered Muholi when looking for an exhibition to visit in November last year and was reminded of them when they became the centre of an anti-racism policy controversy in the arts company I work for.
Essentially, another artist had produced some work for one of our exhibitions that was identified by another art worker as having strong visual and aesthetic links to Muholi's work. The person who noticed this interpreted these similarities as revolving around ideas of blackness, cleanliness, lack of access to effective medicine and sanitation, manual labour and sexuality, sado-masochism etc: themes within Muholi's work. The artist interpreted them as references to sexuality, and cleanliness and the Covid_19 pandemic although denied they were inspired by Zanele Muholi. Visually, the similarities were undeniable and the decision was made by this art worker to not promote this artist's work as it violated their anti-racism policy to support a white artist who had apparently appropriated a black artist's work. Of course, this artist is nowhere near as famous as Muholi, but it does play into a tradition of white people taking from black people to their detriment the world over and throughout history.
Muholi's self portraits were edited to increase the contrast. This made their skin tone darker and their eyes stand out more. In many of them, Muholi poses with their head down and eyes looking reproachfully upwards. To me, this seemed to mimic old ethnographic portraits taken by exploring colonialists. It can also be seen to be reclaiming their blackness which is often used performatively and mockingly in blackface traditions. I think it is fascinating that they chose to use white gloves in some photographs- these I don't recall from the exhibition.
When flicking through the Tate magazine, I saw an image which I had not remembered from the exhibition. It pictures several people lying entwined on a bed. Only their bums and torsos are visible- no hands, feet, faces or identifying features. It is a pure testament to the beauty of skin and shape, light and shadow, form and figure. The fact that it is a black and white silver gelatin print only accentuates the beauty. The photographing of nude torsos is not original of course; the Surrealists were obsessed with photographing nude women and particularly truncating their bodies so that they were more bodies rather than individual people. They too were fascinated with the androgynous, the non-binary, transformative powers of photographing the body. Brassai and Man Ray in particular photographed female bodies as phalluses.
Muholi's image of a 'lovers' legs strewn in languid layers, composing a tableau of sumptuous limbs' (Oluremi C. Onabanjo) is androgynous, ungendered and queer. It reminded me of my recent lino print that I designed last year and I wondered, again, how anyone can produce original work these days.