Zanele Muholi’s 'Faces and Phases'. Picture: Supplied

Founded in 2006 in recognition of a lack of black queer visibility, Muholi’s "Faces and Phases" series has grown into a living archive of black and white photographic portraits of more than 500 lesbians, gender-nonconforming individuals and transmen in various expressions of their sexuality and gender identity. 

Lerato Dumse, photographer, writer, longtime participant in the series and co-ordinator of Inkanyiso Media, appraises this moment, stating, "Celebrations continue to reverberate in South Africa marking 25 years of democracy. Citizens from different cultural backgrounds are taking stock of the trials and tribulations that our democracy has faced and continues to brave. 

"In a unique tribute, Prof Zanele Muholi unveils a new installation of their 'Faces and Phases' project."

The exhibition coincides with the visual activist’s birthday month, and the 13th anniversary of this ongoing series. This new exhibition aims to highlight the long-term relationships that have been nurtured through this series, foregrounding the beauty of the participants and the importance of archiving their presence. 

Created as a means to ensure the visibility of black lesbian and transgender communities post-1994, the series addresses the dearth of visual history for black LGBTQI+ people within the South African queer canon and draws attention to the brutal hate crimes that continue to plague South Africa today.

  Zanele Muholi's 'Faces and Phases'. Picture: Supplied

In 2019, "Faces and Phases 13" embraces a reflective stance to honour some of the milestones reached by this activist project, while acknowledging the long road ahead before full emancipation may be achieved, including the total eradication of hate crimes against members of the LGBTQI+ communities. 

The project visually lobbies for the inclusion of and nondiscrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals in economic, academic, social and other spheres of society. 

"Faces and Phases" was born in 2006, 10 years after the new South African constitution was promulgated, effectively decriminalising homosexuality, and months before the legalisation of same-sex marriage in South Africa, the first African country to enact such a law while others slowly follow suit.

The first "Faces and Phases" portrait of Busi Sigasa was captured at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, where many activists who fought against apartheid were incarcerated. Since that first image of Sigasa, Muholi has photographed more than 500 other participants in different parts of South Africa, in neighbouring African countries and, on some occasions, outside the continent in countries including Canada, Sweden and the UK.

Between 2007 and 2009, Muholi was based in Toronto, Canada, studying at Ryerson University for a Master’s degree in Documentary Media; their thesis mapped the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-apartheid South Africa.

As their visual activism has become global, Muholi has invited participants to join them on their international travels, beginning with the Chicago Gay Games in 2006, spanning other sport events, Pride parades, exhibitions, photography workshops, residencies, performances, film festivals, award ceremonies and other cultural experiences in various parts of the US, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Norway, Netherlands, France, Lesotho, Uganda, Benin and Botswana.

A key aspect of this photographic archive and programme has been skills-sharing and knowledge distribution. As an alumnus of the Market Photo Workshop, Muholi has invested much of their educational philanthropy in this institution. 

This has been done by sponsoring the studies of various "Faces and Phases" participants and giving them their own photography and media equipment. Muholi also facilitates training under PhotoXP, their mobile photography workshop programme, which has a mission to increase the number of visual activists documenting the black LGBTQI+ experience in South Africa.

The past 13 years have allowed Muholi’s visual activism to develop its own path and find wide reaching success, and yet its milestones have been countered by the flaws that continue to exist in our society. HIV/Aids, mental health problems and various chronic illnesses have claimed the lives of six participants since their first portraits were captured for "Faces and Phases". 

This loss highlights the inequalities that persist in South Africa, often preventing "ordinary" citizens from accessing basic quality healthcare. It painfully demonstrates that not everyone can claim their full constitutional rights in a country that prides itself on having one of the best constitutions in the world.

The series will form part of Muholi’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, London (April 29 to October 18, 2020).

The exhibition opened on Saturday, July 20, from 9am to 5pm.