Feature · arts
A photographer's radical vision of a Black lesbian beauty pageant
A decade after Zanele Muholi was a finalist in the South African pageant Ms Sappho, they recreated the moment as a bold declaration of Black, queer beauty.
By Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
Published 24th June 2022
In Snap, we look at the power of a single photograph, chronicling stories about how both modern and historical images have been made.
In pageants around the world, beauty and femininity ideals have long been upheld and rarely challenged. A photograph by the artist Zanele Muholi is a bold declaration of Black queer beauty -- and a reminder that the status quo of mainstream beauty pageants has remained mostly unchanged.
In the striking self-portrait, the South African artist stands proudly in silver platform heels and a red-white-and-blue swimsuit, with a tiara in their hair. A wide white sash across their body is emblazoned with the words "Miss Black Lesbian" -- a nod to a real pageant for Black queer women held in the late '90s titled Ms Sappho, according to the artist. Muholi, then in their late 20s, was a finalist in 1997 at the event, which was held in their home country.
"Miss (Black) Lesbian"
"Miss (Black) Lesbian" Credit: Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of Yancey Richardson and Stevenson
"It was an actual moment to undo (the) invisibility of queer beauty in national pageants," Muholi explained in a phone interview from Johannesburg.
The 2009 self-portrait, titled "Miss (Black) Lesbian," is now part of the Fotografiska New York exhibition "Black Venus," a survey of Black womanhood from pivotal artists including Kara Walker, Deana Lawson and Carrie Mae Weems.
"(The photograph) speaks on queer visibility, it speaks on queer existence, it speaks to the need for people (to) be presented in a meaningful way, or in a respectful way," Muholi said. It also points to "the politics of existence when it comes to people being Black and beautiful," they added.
Though there is a rich history of LGBTQ+ pageants worldwide, such as Ms. Sappho, which celebrate more expansive ideas of beauty, few openly lesbian and trans women have competed in highly visible national or international events.
It was only last year that Miss South Africa saw its first openly trans contestant, Lehlogonolo Machaba, compete, while Kataluna Enriquez broke the same barrier in Miss USA. No openly trans or lesbian women took the stage at Miss Universe until 2018 and 2019, respectively.
"Once a person enters mainstream pageants, and they identify as either lesbian or trans ... it becomes headline (news)," Muholi said. "But if it's a heterosexual woman ... It's normal."
Muholi took the portrait just three years after South Africa legalized same-sex marriage, becoming the only African country to do so. The artist came of age during apartheid and encountered few images of Black queer life -- now their decades-long practice is a larger effort to create that visual record.
In 2014, their collaborative series "Brave Beauties" included trans women and non-binary individuals who have competed in LGBTQ+ beauty pageants in South Africa, with each portrait taken in a mobile studio.
When Muholi photographed themselves as a contestant, they said they were thinking of several things as they stood in front of the camera, adopting a pose of self-assurance.
"I'm decolonizing all the structures that existed before, and that will exist after me," they said.
"But most importantly, self-affirmation, saying 'I'm here .... and this is my time. And nobody could tell me that I'm less beautiful than any other being because this is me.'"
"Black Venus" is on view at Fotografiska New York through August 21.