REVIEW: Zanele Muholi – VUKANI/RISE | Open Eye Gallery | 18.09.15 – 29.11.15

Zanele Muholi: Vukani/RiseZanele Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist whose work explores issues such as gender, race and sexuality, particularly in relation to the South African community. VUKANI/RISE is an exhibition presented at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery with support from Homotopia, and is the first major show of the artist’s work to be exhibited in the UK. Mari Jones went along to the opening of the show, to cast her eye over Muholi’s work.

When you first enter the Zaneli Muholi: VUKANI/RISE exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, you find yourself immediately drawn in by several stunning black and white portraits, each of them competing for your attention. These portraits are part of Muholi’s ‘Faces and Phases’, a growing collection that began when Muholi photographed Busi Sigasa in prison – a poet, an activist, and a survivor of the horrific practise of curative rape, which is used to try to convert lesbians into heterosexuals. The other portraits also feature people of the black South African lesbian and transgender male community, the subjects bravely staring back at you, daring to be looked at. These exceptional portraits also make for a brilliant introduction to Muholi’s work, and to the rest of the VUKANI/RISE exhibition.

The second room of the Open Eye houses Muholi’s largest and most colourful photo, featuring a fashionably dressed attendee of a celebratory remembrance for Muntu Masombuka, a gay man who was also an activist and campaigner. While this photo might draw your eye because of its size and colour, Muholi’s ‘Brave Beauties’ also pull you in, a series of striking and perfectly stylised portraits depicting gay and transgender men. Muholi has her subjects posing in various striking ways, her photos immediately making you question gender issues and what exactly it means to be ‘beautiful’.

Also featured in this room are a series of portraits of Muholi and her lover, tenderly and intimately photographed, as well as ‘Mo (u) rning’, a collection of colour photos that are intimate for a very different reason. Picturing funeral-like scenarios, they show family and friends remembering their loved ones who have died as the result of hate crimes and intolerances, and are another stark and bold addition to VUKANI/RISE and to Muholi’s body of work.

Completing the exhibition at the Open Eye is the upstairs room of the gallery, featuring a number of videos that give you the chance to learn more about Muholi as a visual activist, as well as to hear from the people featured in her portraits. Her subjects talk about the issues they face on a daily basis and how they cope, raising our awareness with their honest, bold stories. The upstairs room also houses an upcycled blackboard dressing table made by the charity initiative Project UP, on which you can write your own thoughts about the issues raised in Muholi’s exhibition – a brilliant interactive piece that is the perfect way to end this marvellous show.

Running from Friday 18th September until Sunday 29th November 2015 at the Open Eye Gallery, Muholi’s exhibition makes us question the gender, sexuality and race issues she puts forth in a striking and confident way. An empowering show featuring stunning photographs, VUKANI/RISE features a strong body of work and acts as a perfect introduction to Zanele Muholi as an artist and activist. This may be her first exhibition in the UK, but it certainly won’t be her last.

Written by Mari Jones

Friday 18 September – Sunday 29 November 2015

Open Eye Gallery
19 Mann Island
Liverpool Waterfront
L3 1BP

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