Zanele Muholi, Phindile I, Paris, 2014
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Zanele Muholi and the urge of militancy: «Visual activism is my calling, it chose me»

Zanele Muholi: «Even if a picture cannot reveal all of a person’s personality and humanity, it can provide a moment for themselves and others to recognize their uniqueness»

Cape Town, mid-October. Zanele Muholi is busy working on Nize Nani, the thirteenth solo exhibition in fifteen years at the Stevenson art gallery.  On Instagram a picture has been posted with the caption: «This year marks 15 years since (2006) I’ve been working as a Visual Activist with Stevenson Gallery. I’d like to celebrate this milestone with all my friends and supporters who’ve been kind to me. I wish to acknowledge all the participants in many visual projects I have produced over time. They say, ‘it takes a village to raise a child; I have to declare and express my gratitude to you all for raising me. I’ve been mentored, I have learned a lot painfully. #I have cried because of mistreatment and all that comes with the package of being in the Artworld. I’ve made good friends… and had good support, not forgetting some challenges too… but in all, I’m truly grateful. #nize_nani.»

Zanele Muholi was born and raised in Umlazi, Durban in 1972, and is the youngest of eight children. Their names have a meaning: Muholi, their family name, means leader. Zanele, their first name, is usually given to the last girl born in a family to express that there are ‘enough’ girls in that family by the parents. Muholi grew up under Apartheid, and their father died shortly after their birth. Their mother, Bester Muholi, toiled long hours as a domestic worker to support the family and had no choice but to leave her children to work for a white family during Apartheid in South Africa. After a few jobs, Muholi took a photography course. Initially, it acted as a way of self-healing and dealing with their struggles. As Muholi says during our interview: «I did not decide to become an artist. Visual activism is my calling; it chose me. My work is always both introspective and expressive of the external context, just as it’s always both personal and political».

Zanele Muholi’s visual activism

Muholi describes themselves as a ‘visual activist’, not an artist. They strongly claim the purpose of their work, focused on depicting the daily life struggles of Black LGBTQ+ folks in South Africa. «For me, rebellion means courage. It means bravery not to accept the status quo and rather to believe in the message you need to share even if you’re discouraged or told you need to keep quiet. All my triumphs have come from deliberately pushing back against systems and institutions that have said my existence was not worthy – this is rebellion».

In 2002, Muholi co-founded the Forum of Empowerment of Women, a Black lesbian feminist advocacy organization. Moreover in 2009, they established Inkanyiso, a platform to obtain a flexible and unique source of information for art advocacy. The organization has financially supported participants to pursue their photography classes and has created itinerant photography schools called Photo XP, which distribute cameras and teach photography. 

South Africa is indeed a country of contrasts, and that is even stronger for queer people. On the one hand, in 1996, the country became the first in the world to constitutionally prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; on the other, there is a culture of fear. Hate crimes are widespread, including ’corrective’ rape to ‘straighten out’ lesbians. In the early 2000s, Muholi began to raise awareness of the hypocrisies and hate crimes that remained prevalent: «Growing up in South Africa, seeing the work of people like Ernest Cole, Afrapix and my mentor, David Goldblatt, I realized that images have the power to tell stories. They can speak long after we are gone. Photography can be both a document and artwork, acting as a piece of evidence but also touching people».

Muholi is very aware of these contradictions. In 2010, Lulu Xingwana, the South African government minister, prematurely walked out of an exhibition after viewing Zanele Muholi’s pictures of naked women intimately hugging. The minister claimed that «it was immoral, offensive, and going against nation-building.» The incident sparked a public debate in South Africa, the only country in Africa whose constitution explicitly outlaws discrimination based on sexuality.

In 2013, Zanele Muholi was honored by the Index on Censorship organization. Their work was recognized with a major international freedom of expression prize, which celebrates the fundamental right to write, blog, tweet, speak out, protest, and create art, literature and music. 

Only half the picture series

Muholi’s work became internationally recognized in the early 2000s with photographs that sought to envision black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and intersex lives beyond deviance and victimhood. The victims of hate crimes in South Africa become the photographer’s first series, Only Half the Picture.

Their work was able to transgress the taboos surrounding black female same-sex practices given their intimate relationships with these communities, negotiating the boundaries through trust and respect. «The body is the one thing we all have in common, and it is because of and through the body that discrimination happens. It is the thing people make judgments about. Historically and in the present day, the body is the most politicized space, so it is crucial to my work. I always include names, dates, and places because it’s crucial to me that the context of my photographs is clear». The photographs offer a view from the inside, a personal perspective on the challenges that black LGBTQIA+ people face. As Muholi says: «The history of the camera and the gaze, looking closely at oneself and looking at another are challenging, however both are also healing».

Triple Muholi
Triple III, 2005, Zanele Muholi

Being and Brave Beauties 

The portraits and works from Muholi’s series, Being (2006 – ongoing), capture intimate moments between couples, as well as their daily life and routines. «Lovers and friends consented to participate in the project, willing to bare and express their love for each other». Commenting on this series, Muholi says: «Being is an exploration of both our existence and our resistance as lesbians/women loving women, as black women living our intersecting identities in a country that claims equality for all within the LGBTI community and beyond. Being is part of an ongoing journey to interrogate the construction of our sexualities and selves, and then to deconstruct ourselves, identity by painfully-earned identity, in order to see the parts that make up our whole».

Furthermore, Brave Beauties (2014- ongoing), celebrates empowered individuals who assert their identities. The photograph depicts these individuals through confident poses, reclaiming the spaces they inhabit. Brave Beauties documents black lesbian women who live in black townships. It represents the interrelationships of race, sexuality, gender and class. Constructed through apartheid policies of separate development, these black townships were built on the city’s peripheries, far from economic hubs, to house black working class who served white areas. Still today, black working class LGBTIQ+ communities face injustices and, unlike the middle class in South Africa, they cannot be protected through private security and health care. 

Somnyama Ngonyama

Though they had self-portraits in series as early as Only half the picture, in 2012 Muholi began turning the camera on themselves. This registered a different body of work, titled Somnyama Ngonyama. Muholi shot their first self-portrait in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2014 that they started regularly working on the project that would become known as Somnyama Ngonyama (translated as Hail the Dark Lioness), with the idea of doing 365 days: «You live as a black person for 365 days; there are a lot of events and experiences that you go through in a year,» Moholi said. «My works come from a place of vulnerability; I’ve often spoken of the pain that it takes to create these images. Perhaps that force is what comes through in the images to create that atmosphere».

Some of the photographs were based on their own experiences, evidencing hostile officialdom; others were inspired by media reports of hate crimes and oppression. «Every image has its own story. For some images, such as Thulani II, Parktown, 2015, I had wanted to speak directly to the massacre of miners in Marikana in 2012, so finding exactly the right material was crucial. The same applies to Ntozabantu VI, Parktown, 2016, where I wanted to specifically touch on the story of Pearl Jansen and European beauty standards. These all took longer periods of thought and research. For other images, however, I worked from spontaneous feeling. For example, with Kwanele, Parktown, 2016, after experiencing racial profiling during my travels, I used the packaging of my suitcase to make a statement. Aphelile IV, Durban, 2020 too was an immediate response to the panic around materials for safety when the Covid pandemic began».

In this series of self-portraits, Muholi experiments through theatrical language with different characters and archetypes, portraying themselves in a stylized fashion. The visual variety depicted in the string references of B&W fashion photography and B&W portraiture.

They say, «I love black and white images and heightened contrasts because this displays the pigment of my skin vividly. It makes Blackness unequivocal and unapologetic». Somnyama Ngonyama is a conceptual series that is personal and deeply political. In the series, Muholi engaged with a discomforting self-defining journey, rethinking the selfie culture, self-representation, and self-expression. As Muholi claimed on the occasion of the first exhibition where the project was displayed: «I have investigated how photographers can question and deal with the body as material or mix it with objects to aestheticize black personhood further. My abiding concern is, can photographers look at themselves and question who they are in society and the position/s that they hold, and maintain these roles after that?»

Art as a way to drive activism – Zanele Muholi

London’s Tate Modern has shown a significant retrospective of this rich body of work. The exhibition will tour across Europe to institutions in Paris, Berlin, and Umeå. However, maybe the most important show of Muholi’s career so far happens to coincide with two particularly significant global events: the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The isolation and lockdown during the pandemic paused Zanele Muholi’s regular practice of photography,  so they turned to painting, a practical decision and meditative exercise. Unlike their photographs, in Muholi’s paintings color plays a starring role in exploring the diversity of gender roles and their representation. As the artist claimed, «there is no binary or opposition between the two expression techniques. I entered painting because I couldn’t shoot due to travel and social restrictions – since then, I have discovered a new, freeing way to express myself». For Muholi, painting and modeling surfaced as both a practical response and a meditative exercise during a time of fear and uncertainty. 

In October 2021, Zanele Muholi presented at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, Nize Nani, a solo exhibition of paintings, sculptures, and installations alongside intimate photographic portraits. Muholi observes how interiority, tenderness, and self-expression can be radical and unifying acts in this work. Through these featured bodies of work, Muholi moves away from the iconographic forms of representation that have characterized their output in recent years: «Art is how I drive my activism. The photographs I take and the paintings I create form part of a living archive; these make self-expression a priority. Through artworks, I can see myself and make space for others to see themselves and their journeys».

Zanele Muholi

Muholi is a South African visual activist and photographer. For over a decade, they have documented black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people’s lives in various townships in South Africa. Zanele Muholi is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, explaining that they «identify as a human being».

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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