The Akron Art Museum announces Zanele Muholi as the winner of the 2022 Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media. Muholi (they/them/theirs) is a South African visual activist recognized for empowering self-portraits that challenge standards of beauty and critique representations of Black people and other people of color. The award accompanies the acquisition of two photographs by Muholi for the Museum’s permanent collection: Loba V, Paris and Wenzeni I, City Lodge Hotel, OR Tambo airport, Johannesburg; both from 2019. These are the first works by an openly non-binary artist to enter the Akron Art Museum’s collection.
Muholi’s photographs are part of an ongoing series of self-portraits called Somnyama Ngonyama, which translates from Zulu—an official language of South Africa and the artist’s first language—as “Hail the Dark Lioness.” In nearly all their self-portraits, Muholi increases the contrast in post-production to emphasize their black skin. The self-portraits are captured in locations around the world, including Asia, Europe, and North America, and each place influences the picture’s composition and the garments Muholi selects. The Akron Art Museum’s acquisition of these two photographs makes the Museum only the second in Northeast Ohio to own works by Zanele Muholi.
Akron Art Museum Senior Curator Jared Ledesma said, “Zanele Muholi’s use of photography as means to further their activism for the LGBTQ community and to critique the medium itself deserves tremendous recognition. I am thrilled we are presenting Muholi with the Knight Purchase Award and acquiring their work for the Museum’s permanent collection.”
Muholi’s works will be featured alongside previous Knight Purchase Award winners in an exhibition titled Responsibility to Reveal: 30 Years of The Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media. The show, organized by Assistant Curator Jeff Katzin, opens on February 19, 2022, and will be on view through June 5, 2022 in the Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries. Responsibility to Reveal will feature over 70 works by 21 artists. The works in the show will include self-portraits, landscapes, family pictures, images of city life, and conceptual works that explore the nature of photography itself.
Akron Art Museum Assistant Curator Jeff Katzin stated, “Over the past three decades, the Knight Prize has been a crucial force for pushing the Museum’s collection forward. Each winner has added a unique perspective and a new form of expression to our holdings. With work that is visually powerful, conceptually rich, and deeply compassionate, Zanele Muholi will fit right in while also expanding our representation of photography in a truly valuable direction.”
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Purchase Award for Photographic Media was established in 1990 through a gift from the Knight Foundation. The award publicly recognizes artists’ achievements and funds the Museum’s purchase of their work. The award is given roughly once a year to a living artist working with photographic media.
To date, twenty-two other photographers have been honored through this award, listed chronologically: Harry Callahan, Thomas Struth, Robert Rauschenberg, Gilbert & George, Carrie Mae Weems, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sophie Calle, Richard Misrach, Oscar Muñoz, John Coplans, Adam Fuss, Mary Ellen Mark, Isaac Julien, Dieter Appelt, Vito Acconci, Eikoh Hosoe, Samuel Fosso, Daido Moriyama, Helen Levitt, Cindy Sherman, Andrea Modica, and LaToya Ruby Frazier. In some cases, the Museum has purchased a small number of large-scale photographic works from the prize winner, while in others it has been possible to bring in a suite of pictures representing the breadth of an artist’s career or the range within an extended photographic project.