Faces and Phases

  • 2011
  • Zanele Muholi
  • Silver gelatin prints on baryta pape
  • Twelve prints

In 2006, Muholi began work on Faces and Phases, “Faces” meaning people and “Phases” meaning the different phases of constructing one’s identity. Today this iconic series features nearly three hundred portraits of women they encountered in South Africa. Pictured at different points in their lives, all the women are photographed according to the same principle: from an equal distance, either facing the camera or turned at a slight angle, either indoors or outdoors, in black-and-white, and without any artifice, decoration, or costumes. In creating this long-term project, Zanele Muholi wanted to give visibility to black lesbian women in South Africa, to reveal their presence and offer them the opportunity to assert themselves—their differences and their singularity. These portraits, unique in their intensity, directly confronting the spectator’s gaze, go beyond social documentary. 

© Zanele Muholi. Photo © Fondation Louis Vuitton / Marc Domage

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Zanele Muholi

Born 1972 (South Africa), Zanele Muholi lives and works in Johannesburg. She grew up in a Durban township. After settling in Johannesburg at the age of 19, she studied graphic design and in 2001 enrolled at the Market Photo Workshop, the school founded by David Goldblatt.

Following her first exhibition in 2004 at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, she worked for the magazine Behind the Mask and cofounded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, based in Gauteng. Muholi defines herself as a “visual activist”. Her work seeks to shine a light on a marginalised lesbian community, which is often a victim of aggression, notably in the form of punitive rape. Her work goes far beyond social documentary to tackle questions of identity head-on. Her series Faces and Phases Follow Up – begun in 2006 and comprising 300 portraits – best represents her approach. Each model was photographed at different stages of her life. “I'm trying to establish a relationship based on the mutual understanding of what it means to be a black lesbian woman today,” she explains.

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