In Dalisu, New York, Muholi’s face emerges from a mass of black yarn draped over her head and shoulders to lock the viewer into silent conversation. By increasing contrast in post-production, Muholi’s dark complexion becomes the focal point of a multi-layered interrogation into complex notions of beauty and desire, as well as the dangerous terrains, racisms, and interlinked “phobias” navigated daily. It was inspired by a negative experience in a New York hotel, where staff treated Muholi as though she were looking for directions, rather than a hotel guest. Muholi explains that “Dalisu means ‘make a plan.’ . . . All those minor questions, they add up to something. And they are so irritating; it feels as if you’re inside a web—a web in your face that you have to constantly peel back in order to breathe . . . Dalisu talks about the feeling of being strangled alive.”
Muholi is one of the most important and influential African photographers working today. A self-proclaimed “visual activist,” she is committed to increasing the visibility of Black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people in South Africa and their struggles for equality. Dalisu is a key work in Muholi’s most recent series of self-portraits, Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the Dark Lioness” in isiZulu). The series employs the conventions of classical portraiture, fashion photography and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics.