In Dalisu, New York, Zanele Muholi’s face emerges from a mass of black yarn draped over their 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 multilayered interrogation into complex notions of beauty and desire, as well as the dangerous terrains, acts of racism and interlinked “phobias” navigated daily. It was inspired by a negative experience in a New York hotel, where staff treated Muholi as someone 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,” they are 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 Zulu). The series employs the conventions of classical portraiture, fashion photography and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics.