Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern review: delightful but devastating show by one of today's supreme photographic artists

 (Zanele Muholi)
(Zanele Muholi)

This was one of the shows that burned brightly in 2020 before another coronavirus wave forced its doors shut. It returns with some additions, reflecting the progress in the South African artist’s work in the intervening years.

And it confirms that Muholi is one of the supreme purveyors of photographic art today, exploring Black queer life in South Africa – and their own place within that culture and more widely – with unflinching directness, touching intimacy and technical virtuosity.

Recent photographs have been added, only enriching an already impressive gathering. However, it also reflects Muholi’s new foray into the medium of bronze, which is far less successful.

Let’s get that one bum note in an otherwise symphonic show out of the way first. There is nothing inherently bad about Muholi’s sculptures, three of which are self-portraits and the other a representation of the full form of the clitoris.

They possess a boldness common to the photographs. But they have little of the complexity, nuance and distinctive beauty of the images around them. Intentionally or not, they look generically ‘fabricated’ – produced according to instructions but with little personal touch. But they offer scant feel for the sculptural material. They’re also pictorial in nature, which limits their three-dimensional impact.

The contrast with the photographs is striking. Because, while I use the term pictorial pejoratively in relation to sculpture, I see a sculptural quality as a boost to photographs. And Muholi has long had a remarkable knack for evoking the texture, physical presence and surface of their subjects.

Julie I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016 (Zanele Muholi)
Julie I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016 (Zanele Muholi)

Often, that means human faces and bodies. From their earliest series, Only Half the Picture – in which they capture the broadest scope of queer, and often particularly lesbian, experience in South Africa, from moments of intimacy, to evidence of extreme precarity and violence – their eye for original crops and angles lent the work a visceral power. You feel their photographs as well as seeing them.

In one ongoing opus, Faces and Phases, Muholi shoots Black lesbians, trans and gender non-conforming people in apparently simple portraits, and yet conjures from them extraordinary depths of defiance and vulnerability. They often return to their sitters to reflect changes over time, but leave gaps when they are unable to do so; several of their sitters have tragically died.

There is also much celebration here: of the intimate moments of queer relationships in the Being and ZaVa series; of LGBTQIA+ people in public life, in a boldly colourful central space, accompanied by a timeline of political and social developments in South Africa that reflects their courage; and of the resistance inherent in the beauty pageants run by trans and non-binary people in the series Brave Beauties.

Much of this reflects Muholi’s acute sensitivity to the lived experience of others, but perhaps their best body of work is devoted to themself. A vast room is given to Somnyama Ngonyama, where they amp up the contrast and frame themself within a wide examination of historic and present racial injustice.

In most of the images Muholi meets our gaze, often employing everyday props, from combs to water bottles and an extension, as adornment. They veer close to surreality at times. But underneath the playfulness is a deadly serious focus on the plurality of identity in relation to Blackness.

By turns delightful and devastating, it is one of the greatest exercises in self-portraiture of this, or any, age.

Thurs until Jan 26 2025;