Works of Zanele Muholi and Frida Kahlo

Updated August 12, 2022

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Works of Zanele Muholi and Frida Kahlo essay

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The degradation of women over the course of humanities evolution is a reality many people have become desensitized to. In my artwork I aimed to subtly remind people of the harshness faced by women around the world and how the wounds of suppression can be used as a reason to give in to societal pressures or one can grow from these wounds. Hence my decision to include watercolour paintings of flowers beneath my photographs that protrude through the cuts. I was interested, from the beginning of this project, in researching artists who used their voice to advocate a change in perception of people who it had become normalized to discriminate against. I chose to link the works of Zanele Muholi and Frida Kahlo to my themes of feminism and discrimination as they are very closely connected to the aims of both those artists. The medium I chose linked to both artists as I painted and photographed aspects of my work. My choice to use photography as one of my mediums came from a place of intent to show hyper reality. This medium is closely linked to Zanele Muholi and her artworks. And the use of watercolour for the flowers linked to `Frida Kahlo. I wanted to show a symbolism between the flexibility and fluidity of water and women and how it is never stagnant always evolving.

In the work ‘Fighting Futility’ the aim was to draw ones attention to the current issue of inequality and the lack of respect shown to women in many aspects of life. The negative space in the photographs represents the battle wounds that have become scars given to women by society. This relates to the notion I am trying to encompass that the plight of the feminist is one that has very much been met with violence and thus left wounds. However the more prominent image I was trying to promote was that of growth. The watercolour flowers symbolise exactly that. The first four photographs in the series show flowers growing through the cuts, symbolising a will to grow and let ones wounds form part of who they are but not let them become all they are or discourage them from continuing to fight for what is right in the face of adversity. However the other four photographs show cuts with nothing beneath them. This symbolised the unwillingness to stand up again, an unwillingness or inability to move past their wounds which is the reality for many due to different circumstances. My artwork is something that incorporates the ideas of both feminist rebellion and growth.

I chose to use a facially borderline androgynous looking model who has a very beautifully feminine figure because I wanted to show the importance of men in the fight against futility seeing as men have just as large a role to play in the deconstruction of a system of oppression that relies just as strongly on men to operate as it does on women. My choice to use photography as one of my mediums came from a place of intent to show hyper reality. In my series all of the photographs show every mark on the skin which is something I intentionally was trying to show, because each mark is a scar, a wound, a story. I did not airbrush or edit the photographs other than exposing them and putting a black and white filter over them. This medium is closely linked to Zanele Muholi and her artworks as she too focuses on showing her models through a lens of realness. And the use of watercolour for the flowers linked to `Frida Kahlo as much of her work is painted including the artwork I chose to analyse. I wanted to show a symbolism between the flexibility and fluidity of water and women and how it is never stagnant always evolving. I came to my final practical idea through combining many of my ideas into one.

The aim of my final was to convey the message that although women have been and continue to be degraded by society they continue to grow from this destruction. The use of watercolour paint was intentional as it not only allowed me to create a delicate appearance of the flowers but it also is symbolic, water both creates and destroys. I used specific colours on the different body part paintings because they are symbolic of different things. Red on the heart symbolised love, which closely links to the Frida Kahlo artwork I researched. Blue in the lungs symbolised air and also links to Kahlo’s work because in her painting she is being denied air by the roots which I took as being symbolic of society denying women rights. I used yellow on the brain to symbolise knowledge, something many women are denied the right to but still find a way to learn and pink/red on the uterus for femininity and menstruation.

Pink also represents birth and fertility and links to the notion of women not being able to hold down jobs because of children and red links to the stereotype that a women’s menstruation inhibits rational thought. My intention with the four additional photographs that appear in my book (journal) as part of the series was to show that women can either choose to fight back against sexism and discrimination and from that grow as shown in the larger photographs with the watercolour paintings of flowers protruding from body parts. However women can also choose to submit to the destruction of their rights and through that obtain nothing but wounds as shown in the four photographs appearing in my journal. This links to both Muholi and Kahlo as the intention of their work was to evoke an activist interpretation and response.

The work Bester 1 (Mayotte) by Zanele Muholi was done with the intent of being reflective of her activism, she also has been very active in the LGBTQIPA community of South Africa and her earlier work reflects this. She very much turns the camera on herself in this artwork resulting in a contemplative and reflective photographic series. This photograph in particular relates to the place of black women in society but also their place in their own communities. They are responsible for the house work and childcare which is problematic if it is not their choice to be responsible for such things but have rather been forced into that life style by societal standards. Muholi uses items that symbolise housework like clothes pegs and as well as responding to the place of black women responds to the place of domestic workers. She is also challenging the images of black women in the media currently. The artwork depicts an image of Muholi with an exaggerated darkness consuming her, the whiteness on her lips also impacts her skin tone and in my opinion shows a contrast between black and white. This is very much something `I focused on doing in my photographs in order to show stark contrast between the women and her growth (The flowers) but also to show the black and white of oppression and how no nuances are considered. Muholi is emerging from her feminism and her blackness as symbolised by her hyper dark background into a changed and more accepting space. She is choosing to grow which is what my project depicts.

Frida Kahlo’s work Self Portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird is directly confronting the stereotype of men’s necessity to have women as something with which to further promote themselves. Kahlo produced this artwork in response to her divorce and with the feminist intent of rebelling against the assumption of women’s responses to love and relationships. That being the often perpetuated assumption that women are run by their emotions, hormones and bodily functions such as menstruation and this inhibits them from level headedness. In the artwork Frida Kahlo is directly confronting the viewer’s gaze. Her bold eyebrows hold the emphasis of her face and frame her gaze. A thorn necklace is strangling her like roots of a tree which `I interpret as being symbolic of her previous husband, denying her breathe and growth. That idea strongly links to the societal pressure that is strangling and preventing the growth of women which is what my project and final piece focuses on. Her aesthetic was greatly based on indigenous Mexican culture and that shows through in this artwork. The dead hummingbird around her neck is symbolic of falling in love in Mexican culture. This links to the theme that I have linked to both artists and myself, that of femininity, women and self-growth.

When I was naming my work I wanted to make sure I was encapsulating my message, that being to grow from and fight against societal stigmas and discriminations. I was brain storming names like ‘feminist floral’ and ‘growth of girls’ and then I read an article in the New York Times about the pervasive sexism of premiere league football teams and one of the cheerleaders who was being interviewed about being taught never to respond aggressively to unwanted advances but to rather politely excuse themselves said that “speaking to management was futile” This made me think and realise that women’s accounts of events should not be futile and if others will not address the problem it is time women did. We need to grow into strong and powerful people (similarly to what both Muholi and Kahlo advocate in their feminist and empowering artworks) and that I felt was what my project is about.

Therefore I feel this is why and how I have been influenced by the artists Zanele Muholi and Frida Kahlo. Their techniques and themes both played a large role in my interpretation and conceptualisation of my final piece “Fighting Futility”.

Works of Zanele Muholi and Frida Kahlo essay

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Works of Zanele Muholi and Frida Kahlo. (2022, Jun 09). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/works-of-zanele-muholi-and-frida-kahlo/


What is the primary function of Zanele Muholi's Faces and Phases series?
Zanele Muholi's Faces and Phases aims to address the representation of black lesbian and queer identity , focusing largely on post-apartheid South Africa.
What is Zanele Muholi known for?
A photographer and self-proclaimed visual activist, Zanele Muholi explores Black queer identity in contemporary South Africa . Muholi first rose to prominence with their series “Faces and Phases,” for which they shot hundreds of sensitive portraits …
Where is Zanele Muholi based?
Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban and lives in Johannesburg.
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