Zanele Muholi

b. 1972, South Africa

Self, 2005
Photographic print

Image courtesy Stevenson Gallery, South Africa

This work depicts the artist. It was included in an exhibition, the artist’s first, with Stevenson Gallery in 2005. The exhibition was titled, Only Half the picture, and given the images on the show, in which most often the identity of the subject was obscured, it might have referred to this approach. Only later, would Muholi return to self-portraiture and become known for it.

However, in this image, opposed to the stance Muholi took as a sitter and the pose most of the artist’s subjects in Faces and Phases series adopted, Muholi does not engage the viewer. Not only does the artist look away from the viewer, hides from them, but Muholi appears to use their hair as a shield, under which the artist can retreat from the gaze of the viewer but also evade being scrutinised, though ironically, being naked, the artist is vulnerable. In this way the artist’s locks come to define and conceal her identity, standing in for universal ideas for what this hairstyle might symbolise. The artist appears to be neither male nor female. Significantly, the artist lays their-self bear – no adornments and props as would define the self-portraiture of the Somnyama Ngonyama series for which Muholi is most well-known.