Portrait of the Artist: John MacMahon ’95 Brings Muholi to Davidson College

Students Studying in Wall by Muholi Art

Students study under the gaze of Ntozakhe II, Parktown.

Nearly a decade ago, John MacMahon ’95 and a photography group he was a part of joined Zanele Muholi for dinner after a presentation at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Today Muholi, the widely celebrated South African artist-activist, is represented in Davidson’s E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center thanks to MacMahon and his passion for bringing exceptional art to a community he loves. 

Students study in the sunlit atrium under the gaze of Ntozakhe II, Parktown, the most iconic of Muholi’s murals from the Somnyama Ngonyama self-portrait series. The only other edition of the work was acquired by the National Gallery of Art. It has been featured in the touring exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories, which is traveling to eight museums in the U.S. and internationally, making it one of the most viewed works in Davidson’s art collection. The work is also the cover image of the artist’s first comprehensive publication, now in its second printing, Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness. 

“I first saw these murals at the Venice Biennale, and I was struck by how powerful they were,” he said. “Subsequently, I was on a committee working to add a mural to the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and I immediately felt like Davidson needed one, too.” 

Muholi Artwork in Wall Center

Ntozakhe II, Parktown by Zanele Muholi; E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center

The Muholi work has a striking, 9-ft. presence just inside the Mauzé Terrace entrance to the Wall Center. It has been on loan to the college from MacMahon since January 2021 and now is a part of the permanent collection. Over the last couple of years, he has encouraged friends to donate pieces from the series to other major institutional collections, as well. 

“Not only is the artist significant, but this particular work was such a good choice,” said Galleries Curator Lia Newman. “We love that it’s found a home here, on our campus. This work, one made by an LGBTQIA artist exploring identity through portraits and self-portraits, is part of a larger strategy throughout campus where art becomes the vehicle to dissect, speak about and understand an array of challenging ideas; in this case, Muholi’s work is about visibility, empowerment and belonging.”

Cole Thornton ’21 wrote about the piece when it was first installed: 

To create the series, Muholi took inspiration from their community, including other Black South African queer and female individuals, as well as the experiences of domestic workers in South Africa, including Muholi’s own mother. Muholi reimagines objects often associated with domestic labor in their representations of Black women and queer folk. In Ntozakhe II, Muholi creates a crown or afro of scouring pads. Combined with the dark, draped fabric around their shoulders and the artists’ posture—eyes lifted skyward and neck regally extended—the image evokes majesty. The artist’s decision to print the artwork nine feet tall emphasizes the grandeur; adhering it to the wall directly asserts its permanence.

Cole Thornton ’21

MacMahon’s passion for art began during his childhood, growing up in Houston’s robust arts scene. He was enrolled in weekly drawing and ceramic classes and took regular trips to museums and galleries with his parents and aunt. Over the years, his specific interest narrowed to photography, and he began collecting in 2006 while living in New York City. 

As a Davidson student, the art lover chose to focus his education on economics and international studies, but he was able to take a few art survey courses. 

“The VAC [Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center] was built during my time on campus, and it got me excited that the college was bringing more focus on visual art to campus,” he said. “I liked the idea of bringing the outside world in for students who weren’t dedicated art majors or art-focused people—to generate an interest in art for the general student body. That’s how I learned about art and artists … going to museums, experiencing the work. Seeing it is key.” 

Initially placed on the waitlist—MacMahon blames a dip in grade point average his freshman year in high school—fellow alum Sam Cutting ’89 was working in the Office of Admission and took an interest in what this Davidson hopeful could bring to the college community. In appreciation for the time and effort Cutting dedicated to MacMahon’s application, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, has been gifted in his honor. 

“Things kind of came full circle, as I enrolled in the Wharton MBA program after Davidson, and I joined their admissions team as a student reader and scorer,” MacMahon said. “I always remember Sam and thought I would do something to show how much his efforts meant to me.” 

Davidson College is better for MacMahon having been admitted. He has contributed much to the institution, including the painted steel sculpture Walking See Flower, by Texan artist James Surls, located just outside Vail Commons. MacMahon serves on the college’s Board of Visitors and the Art Collection Advisory Committee. He now calls Rancho Mirage, California, his home and focuses on private equity energy investments across more than 20 companies.