Releasing Tension and becoming Empathic: Zanele Muholi's exhibition at Tate Modern (2020)
Tension most commonly refers to the state of something being tightly stretched. The image of two oppositions can be imagined here. Have you ever believed in something and encountered another person who has a different opinion to you? And then you're left in a space of conflict to one another? You both consider different values, perspectives and understandings, and therefore form opposing ends of an invisible rope which is being tightly pulled apart. The idea of this perceived tension is what I want us to focus on here.
In Zanele Muholi's recent exhibition, at Tate Modern (5th November 2020 - 7th March 2021), a collective experience for black queer identity is represented. Up until 1996 apartheid - "the political and social system of racial segregation underpinned by white minority rule", Zanele Muholi's Tate Exhibition Catalogue (2020) - was legal and rife in South Africa. This meant that black people were subject to racism, suppression and marginalisation due to the colour of their skin. Despite being humans, like the white people around them, they became transformed into an object of fear and subsequently became targets of abuse. Within this space of social injustice, the LGBTQIA+ (queer communities), who also belong to the black race, experienced a doubling of suppression due to both their sexuality and their racial background.
When a black piece of A4 paper is put against a white piece of A4 paper there is an immediate contrast due to their differing colours. But ultimately the two objects are materially the same. Their texture is smooth, their edges are sharp, they share the same dimensions and the only difference is the way in which the light represents them to our eyes.
The first room in the exhibition, 'Only Half The Picture', is abrupt as it represented victims who have survived hate crimes, in South Africa, due to their sexuality and race. Muholi displays each one of the queer women and non-binary individuals through a lens of intimacy and sensitivity. The images are confrontational and expose a lesbian experience in a raw and compassionate way. Also, the universal female experience of having a period is represented through one particular image of period stained underwear. Muholi representing these images, with a confidence to shape a collective truth for many female and queer individuals, in a recognised gallery space in London, is important. Liberation meets these images and transforms the sombre tone of the initial theme of suffering that the subjects had experienced.
To consider another person's suffering, without any true understanding of how they must feel, requires empathy. Empathy is the space of sharing the feelings of another. Through this, the act of 'putting yourself into someone else's shoes' arises. By wearing their shoes the experience of another identity group becomes visible to your eyes - you start to see the world as they do. You start to feel the suffering that they do. You become the feeling of pain that they feel. But luckily, you can take their shoes off, and then replace your feet with your own shoes again. Now this is not to say that your shoes don't taint you with an experience of pain or suffering. But more so, the act of being able to consider that person's pain through love, compassion, and empathy is where the power in human connection lies.
The remaining rooms in the exhibition continue to represent the space of black queerness and Muholi's perspective, when documenting her community. In the exhibition catalogue, there is a quote by Muholi on the first page which states: 'My mission is to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in South Africa and beyond'. But what else comes out of her intention is a liberating and an empowering attitude. The fact that her work is now being seen by audiences from varied social demographics, ethnic backgrounds and class groups in London demonstrates liberation in a beautiful way.
Liberation which is the act of setting someone free and through each of the images in the gallery a sense of a social release underpins each of them. The expansive size of the photographs - the collective, highly contrasted self-portraits of Muholi, the black trans community, and particularly her ongoing series 'Faces and Phases' (2006) represent a space for a community to be seen, heard and appreciated in the setting of the gallery. And perhaps this appreciation will translate into the empathy that we as the audience will experience beyond the gallery walls, and out into the wider world, when we encounter those who have opposing views to us.
Now to return back to the theme of tension which is existent upon most things in society, and therefore mandatory to the human experience. Most of the time the tension exists within us individually and therefore requires us to create the change that we aspire to see in the world. Perhaps the idea of one person holding one end of the invisible rope should be replaced with the idea of our left hand holding onto the rope in relation to our right hand. Now the rope is in your hands and the tension can be controlled by you. This is where empathy can take its place, and we can use our individual power to love, empathise and be compassionate to make positive changes in our daily life and the world around us.