Zanele Muholi: LGBTQ+ Visual Activism Through the Means of Photography
“In the face of all the challenges our community encounters daily, I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is black queer visibility. It is important to mark, map, and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories for reference and posterity so that future generations will note that we were here.”
Zanele Muholi “Faces and Phases”, 2010.
Born in Durban, 1972, photographer and self-proclaimed visual activist Zanele Muholi started her photography career at a Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in 2004. Since then, she’s gained international recognition for her work. As a queer black African woman, Muholi is not afraid to question sexuality, gender, identity, or race in her work. She uses photography to report, preserve, and document the members of the black queer and lesbian community, so that their rights and the issues that they face shine through.
“Art needs to be political—or let me say that my art is political. It's not for show. It's not for play.”
Muholi’s international success hopefully indicates a turning of the tide against African LGBTQ+ erasure. All too often, people turn a blind eye as the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa are subjected to harassment, extreme violence and even “corrective rape” or “curative rape”. It is easy to deny that problems do not exist for the community when the lives of the queer South Africans is hidden by a lack of documentation to acknowledge their existence. In return Muholi casts a harsh and unblinking light on the South African LGBTQ+ community. Their humanity undeniable. Their existence undeniable.
One of Muholi’s photographic series’, Faces and Phases is a collection of black-and-white portrait photography that displays and interrogates questions such as “what does an African lesbian look like?” or “can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?.” The series’ visual language conveys all of the tradition of historical documentation that Muholi identified as lacking, but with authentic representations of the communities and individuals in her life, but with none of the colonialist male gaze of times gone past.
The series interacts with the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ South Africans she has photographed, documenting their community, their struggles, and their resistance.
“Phases articulates the collective pain we as a community experience due to the loss of friends and acquaintances through disease and hate crimes.”
A number of participants in Faces and Phases, have since died from disease or have been killed from hate crimes. The series allows viewers to remember the struggles, work, and accomplishments of the lives of the participants, especially the participants who have since died. Among them, the lives of Busi Sigasa, Buhle Msibi, Nosizew Cekiso, Penny Fish, and Sosi Molotsane are remembered and documented.
This piece was edited by Jeannette C Franks