A constitution is written. Laws are enacted. Amendments are passed. Equal rights and equal treatment are guaranteed and bigotry and violence fade away into the distant past. Bunnies knit rainbows out of butterfly wings and free pizza and puppies show up at everyone’s doorsteps. Or not. South Africa’s Constitution (adopted in 1996) prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2006, the government legalized same-sex marriage. And each year members of South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community experience discrimination, hate crimes, and violence, including over 500 (reported, more go unreported) “corrective rapes” perpetrated on lesbians each year. Despite the progress, true equality and safety remain out of reach.
Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, South Africa in 1972. She grew up under apartheid. In 1991, she came out as a lesbian. She helped found the Forem for the Empowerment of Women in 2002, a lesbian organization and a space for women to meet and organize. Muholi began studying photography in 2003. One year later, she had her first solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. In 2005 she received the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts. In 2009, Muholi graduated from Ryerson University with a MFA in Documentary Media. That same year, she founded another organization, Inkanyiso, which facilitates LGBTQIA+ activism through the visual arts and the media. Their mission statement is “Produce. Educate. Disseminate.” Muholi has won several awards and fellowships from around the world. She has had solo exhibits in Nigeria, Austria, Milan, London, Amsterdam, Montreal, and New York City. Her work has been shown in group exhibitions across the globe, from Toronto to Singapore to Brazil to Mali. In 2014, Muholi presented at the prestigious Design Indaba Conference.
But it hasn’t been all accolades and appreciation for Muholi. In 2009, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, left an exhibition that included Muholi’s photographs of lesbians saying it was offensive and immoral. Three years later, Muholi’s apartment was broken into and over 20 hard drives were taken. They contained years of her work. Nothing else of value was taken, suggesting the theft was specifically motivated by her work and activism. Real mature, people; that’ll stop her. *eye roll*
So, what is so offensive about Zanele Muholi? She is black; she is a lesbian; she is an artist; she is an activist. Each one of those things would be cause for conservative undies to get in a bunch, but put it all together and you have a layer cake of controversy. Her work, mostly photography and some video, focuses on the struggles of being black and LGBTQIA+ in South Africa. Muholi stated, “You can’t change the laws without changing the images. It is one thing to say we exist; it is another to show it. Art is political, art is about activism.” To instigate change, challenge prejudice, and raise awareness, Muholi creates series of photographs of people and daily life events in the black LGBTQIA+ community. “Faces and Phases” is a series of more than 200 photographs of South African black lesbians. They are striking, beautiful black and white portraits. Muholi documents all aspects of LGBTQIA+ life: weddings, intimacy, funerals, hate crimes. It is intense work. “I have listened to so many people’s pain,” Muholi said, “and it meant I had to sleep with that pain…” But by showing images of the community, by documenting its daily experiences, the LGBTQIA+ community is being seen. It normalizes what is often seen as “other,” and challenges prejudices of gender, sexuality, and race. Muholi, continues to challenge herself artistically. She also, only recently, began to turn the camera on herself. She found self-portraits to be intense and confrontational: “…you want to tell the truth, but at the same time you have reservations for confronting the self, dealing with you.” In these portraits she often darkens her skin tone, emphasizing her blackness and its beauty.
Muholi continues to create and to fight for the black LGTBQIA+ community, and the LGBTQIA+ community on the whole. And picture by picture, she is making a difference. Zanele Muholi: visual activist and badass extraordinaire.