Synonymous with world-class contemporary international art, Bildmuseet in Sweden’s Umeå is home to high-quality exhibitions, thought-provoking collaborations and stunning architecture. The museum is currently hosting a powerful collection of photos from world-renowned Zanele Muholi, and its doors are wide open.

When it comes to Bildmuseet, it’s not only what’s on the inside that counts. The museum is in itself a piece of art, with architecture that attracts the eye. Designed by renowned Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects, the seven-floor purpose-built building has a wooden façade with large windows and sits next to the serene Ume River. It’s fitting, really, that this somewhat bold building is home to Muholi’s striking collection, giving its significance and importance a platform to flourish.

Zanele Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist whose work has been exhibited all over the world. Muholi has portrayed the lives of people within the LGBTQIA+ community for over a decade, empathy and pride always taking centre stage. Now, and until 8 May, around 100 photos and video installations divided into eight themes are on display at Bildmuseet. “We’re thrilled to be showing Zanele Muholi’s work here at the museum and inviting the public to discover and engage with this important collection of art,” says Brita Täljedal, one of the display’s curators.

The exhibition presents Muholi’s career as photographer and activist and includes photos that are both beautiful and captivating. One of the series on show is Only Half the Picture, which documents people who have been victims of hate crime because of their sexual orientation. In this series, a sense of love, intimacy and strength feature alongside intense images alluding to traumatic events. Because although South Africa’s 1996 constitution promised equality for the LGBTQIA+ community, people in this group are still targets of violence and prejudice.

Bildmuseet: Meet the gaze of Zanele Muholi

View of the Zanele Muholis exhibition at Bildmuseet, 2021–2022.

Stories of bravery

Another theme – and perhaps the most impactful – is the ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama, which translates to ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’. A collection of self-portraits, these powerful and reflective images explore themes including labour, racism, Euro-centrism and sexual politics. At first glance, they bring the mind to editorial fashion shots, but as you look closer, you realise that they’re anything but.

In one image, Muholi wears clothes pegs in their hair to pay tribute to their mother who worked as a housekeeper to feed her eight children. “Muholi is a very intelligent and innovative photographer who delivers political messages in ways that really strike a chord,” explains Täljedal. In their own words, Muholi takes back their Blackness because they feel it’s been staged by privileged white people. In these photos, Muholi has deliberately increased the colour contrast so that their skin looks even more Black and their eye whites even more white. Captivating and serious, yet playful.

There’s also Faces and Phases, an ongoing series that has brought Muholi international recognition. The collection holds over 500 portraits of individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community, celebrating their lives and bravery. These people risk everything by living authentically in the face of oppression and discrimination. Faces refers to the individuals in the photos, while Phases refers to transitions regarding sexuality, gender and identity, but also changes in their everyday lives. “Each subject looks directly at the camera, challenging you as a viewer to hold your gaze. It’s quite powerful,” says Täljedal.

The heart of art

“I believe that art overall can affect people in different ways to news and other media. It gives us another way of looking at the world, with new perspectives, and is absorbed differently by our brains,” says Täljedal. “And that’s the power of art.”

Asked why she thinks Muholi’s work has such great impact on people globally, Täljedal says she believes it’s the combination of strong, visual photography and political content – as well as the calculated composition and level of empathy found in each piece of work. “I think that we all have something to learn from Zanele Muholi,” she concludes.

Bildmuseet: Meet the gaze of Zanele Muholi

Left: Zanele Muholi, Mellisa Mbambo, Durban South Beach, 2017. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg/Amsterdam and Yancey Richardson, New York. Middle: Zanele Muholi, Qiniso, The Sails, Durban, 2019. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg/Amsterdam and Yancey Richardson, New York. Right: Zanele Muholi, Bona, Charlottesville, 2015. © Tate. Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee 2017.

Current and upcoming exhibitions at Bildmuseet:

Zanele Muholi
Until 8 May

Iwo Myrin: Memories from the Taiga
Until 17 April

Eva Kotatkova: What Does a Turtle Feel Through the Carapace?
8 Apr to 4 Sep

Swedish Picture Book of the Year
18 Mar to 16 Oct

Mats Jonsson: Still Sámi
17 Jun to 30 Jan 2023

Nancy Holt: Inside Outside
17 Jun to 2 Apr 2023

Instagram: @bildmuseet

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