Zanele Muholi and the Women’s Mobile Museum

BY Jean Dykstra, March 3, 2019

Zanele Muholi, Isiqhaza I, Philadelphia, 2018. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

At this point in her career, the barriers faced by South African photographer Zanele Muholi – barriers preventing her from speaking her truth and taking control of her own image – would seem to have been dispatched, conquered by the force of her powerful photographs and stunning, theatrical self-portraits. Her work has been widely published and exhibited, and now, selections from her latest series, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, are on view at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC) through March 30 and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) through March 31, as part of the multi-venue exhibition Zanele Muholi and the Women’s Mobile Museum. The self-portraits, in which she gazes directly into the lens, turning unorthodox materials – rubber gloves, clothespins, a vacuum-cleaner hose – into elaborate and symbolic costumes, are at once defiant, satiric and gorgeous confrontations with history.

Zanele Muholi, Bester IX, Philadelphia, 2018. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

The co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, which advocates for the rights of black lesbians in South Africa, as well as the founder of Inkanyiso, a collective for queer activism and visual media, Muholi uses her photography to articulate her political agenda, which revolves around representations of the LGBTQ community in South Africa and human rights more generally. “What does it mean to photograph yourself?” she asked in a video for the PPAC: “You give yourself a voice.” 

So when Muholi was invited to do a residency at the PPAC, she decided to give other women a voice as well. She conceived of the Women’s Mobile Museum, selecting ten Philadelphia artists who faced social and economic barriers to creating art to participate. Following an apprenticeship coordinated by the PPAC’s Lori Waselchuck, an exhibition was assembled and shown at the PPAC and PAFA as well as two Philadelphia community centers. The participating artists include those on the following pages, as well as Tash Billington, Muffy Ashley Torres, Iris Maldonado, Davelle Barnes, Danielle Morris, and Andrea Walls.

Who is art for? That is the question posed by Muholi and the Women’s Mobile Museum, and they answer it in the broadest terms, terms that specifically include women of color and that break down the hierarchies that exist where works of art are produced and shown. The ramifications of those hierarchies are widely recognized: the Museum of Modern Art is closing for renovations this summer and reopening with 40,000 square feet of additional space that “will allow MoMA to focus new attention on works by women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans and other overlooked artists,” according to the New York Times. But Muholi and the Mobile Women’s Museum are not waiting for institutions, which have generally been late to the game. “If we do not write a visual history that speaks to us, for us,” Muholi observed, “no one will do it.” 

Lindeka Qampi, Umthwallo II, 2018. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

Lindeka Qampi is a South African photographer and teaching artist who works with Zanele Muholi as a project facilitator with a consortium of photographers called Ilisu Labantu. “As a person who uses photography as therapy, I wanted the women to focus on themselves, to use the camera as a way of healing. In my series Inside My Heart, I’m breaking the silence of the survival of rape by using art, photography, and poetry together. As a mother, I think it’s important for us mothers to talk about it. My mother passed away without knowing what happened to me, so my work is about sending a message to my late mother about that incident.”

Carrie-Anne Shimborski, Peske Tide, 2018. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

Carrie-Anne Shimborski is a painter and emerging photographer whose work is rooted in her family and home. “My best pictures are the things close to me, my loved ones. The photograph [at left, taken on the banks of the Delaware River] is a pictures of my brother, who I lost in 2015 to a heroin overdose…. I always wanted an opportunity like this. I was always interested in photography, but as a single mom, I just never had the means to pursue it.”

Afaq, Still, 2018. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

Afaq is an artist, activist, and educator whose self-portraiture challenges the Western gaze. “I started photographing in 2015, when I went to Sudan for the first time in 10 years … and met some of my family members again. A lot of that took place in a refugee camp, and one of the heartaches was not remembering their faces. I felt documenting them was so important, because if we don’t write our stories, if we don’t document our stories, they will say we never existed. My work is an investigation of the Western gaze, the male gaze, this othering.”

Shana-Adina Roberts, Strain, 2018. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

Shana-Adina Roberts is a painter and photographer. “My series Black Incandescence is about explaining the inner turmoil of being black, the strain of having to remain calm and feign happiness when inside you’re struggling. My goal is to express myself, and to display my work in a way that people can see it. A lot of times [during the exhibitions] we heard that this was the first time people had ever been to a museum. That was great, especially for the children.”

Shasta Bady, from As Above, So Below, 2018. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

Shasta Bady is an aspiring scientist, photographer, and paper maker. “This series started when I got into a car accident and was forced to take public transportation. I would get into deep conversations with people on the train. As a photographer, the natural thing is to be in control, but on public transportation you have no control, and in that space I was able to find peace. I chose people to photograph – it could be a color, a gaze, the way the light hit them, their body language. People who were comfortable in their skin.”