In a portrait of Marcel Kutumela, beneath the brim of a fedora hat, her cool gaze extends toward and beyond the viewer. It at once implores attention and inserts distance between subject and spectator. Her hat and layered garment cover her body and impart an old world masculinity. Dramatic lighting heightens the theatricality of the picture, which resembles a film noir set, and engages viewers. Yet as soon as they begin to penetrate the surface, the image disappears. It is one slide among many, projected without contextualisation onto a bare wall. Viewers are confronted with other faces, other looks, and the individuals they observed become a community. In this set of photographic portraits, clothing functions as a conspicuous tool in interpreting identity and relationships, between person and group, and spectator and subject.
The images are part of Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) Faces and Phases portrait series, and the above installation is from Isibonelo/Evidence, the current exhibition of her work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Viewers are able to view the actual silver gelatin prints in a large room behind the wall of slides, where Muholi’s concern with the materiality of identity is unmistakable. She has written, “In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. […] Faces express the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another.” Clothing thus serves to articulate and document the process of identity fabrication, as well as incite viewers to question their own thought process. According to Muholi,
The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?
The cultural context of violence and inequality that envelops these portraits–reinforced by personal testimonies scrawled on an adjacent wall–sets the exhibition’s grave tone. It is the first installation viewers see in Isibonelo/Evidence, and is perhaps the most meaningful counterpart to The Dinner Party (1974-79) by Judy Chicago, which permanently resides in an adjoining room. Like its predecessor, Faces and Phases was created during a moment of upheaval in terms of sexual identity and rights. It also concerns the individual identities of a marginalised group, an how they are classified through their own production. Production in the earlier instance was expressed through the iconography of women in history, and, in Muholi’s work, by the ways everyday people style themselves. This helps visitors relate to the dynamics of being and seeing, and urges them to reflect on their own participation in the politics of appearance today.