In this self-portrait, South African photographer Zanele Muholi uses light and contrast to exaggerate the darkness of black skin. Muholi’s bearing suggests an unapologetic pride in black identity. “Just like our ancestors,” the artist has said, “we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.” At the same time as it celebrates the beauty of blackness, this photograph also alludes to problematic representations of people of color by white artists throughout the history of art. Here, Muholi dresses and poses like a Renaissance bust, reminding us that the default body in Western art has historically been white. When black and brown bodies are represented in Western art, they are often exoticized and exploited.
Label from We the People: New Art from the Collection, October 23, 2018–July 21, 2019