Last week, Botswana’s High Court made history when it overturned colonial-era laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations. The ruling, which came mere weeks after Kenya’s High Court ruled to uphold its own 19th-century laws criminalizing “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” is being seen as a landmark victory for LGBTQ activists across the continent.
The significance of the Botswana ruling hasn’t been lost on South African photographer and self-described “visual activist” Zanele Muholi. For almost 20 years, Muholi, who uses gender-neutral pronouns (including “they” and “their”), has documented black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex South Africans, many of whom have suffered homophobic violence, oppression and erasure in their communities.
“Speaking as a human being, speaking as an African, these outdated laws need to be revised in all African countries for this generation of ours,” Muholi said in a phone interview.
“There are so many good, brilliant, professional, talented, queer Africans who have left the continent because they have been mocked, violated, displaced and oppressed. Let everybody in Africa be free. That’s why I picked up a camera. I didn’t want someone else to tell my story. I wanted to teach the next queer child that it’s OK to be.”
Discrimination based on sexual orientation has been outlawed by South Africa’s constitution since 1996, and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2006. But members of the post-apartheid generation, Muholi said, don’t take these victories for granted. Despite legislation, homophobic violence and attitudes persist.
It’s with this in mind that Muholi shot their portrait series “Faces and Phases” (2006-), “Innovative Women” (2010) and “Transfigures,” (2010-2011). By presenting their LGBTQ subjects as brave, confident and beautiful, Muholi shines a spotlight on their humanity.
“The power of Zanele Muholi’s images lies in their ability to register the nuanced, complicated kinds of strength, resilience, and beauty that can be found within the LGBTQI+ community,” said curator and scholar Oluremi C. Onabanjo in an email.
“Muholi has used collaboration and introspection to portray individuals and communities that have been systematically targeted or completely erased. It is critical to recognize the significance of this kind of photographic practice – one of ‘visual activism’ – which itself is an undeniable gift and a lasting political commitment.”
For their latest series “Somnyama Ngonyama” (meaning “Hail the Dark Lioness” in Zulu) Muholi took up a place in front of the camera as well as behind it, blending elements of fashion photography and satire to unpack layers of personal and cultural history.
Using found objects and historically loaded props – such as headdresses composed of clothespins and scouring pads to honor the artist’s late mother, who worked as a domestic for 40 years – Muholi asserts African identity as one of resistance and affirmation while challenging cliched representations of African cultures. The darkness of their skin, exaggerated by heightened contrast levels in post-production, becomes a focal point for interrogations of beauty and pride.
In the past few years, Muholi has received widespread institutional recognition. In 2017, Muholi received France’s prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and last year they were awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society.
This year, Muholi has 15 pieces in the 58th Venice Biennale exhibition “May You Live in Interesting Times,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, and an exhibition of their work that originated at London’s Autograph ABP gallery in 2017 will travel to the Seattle Art Museum this summer. In April 2020, Muholi will be the subject of their first major retrospective at London’s Tate Modern.
But Muholi’s work hasn’t always been embraced. In 2010, South African government minister Lulu Xingwana walked out of a Johannesburg exhibition featuring Muholi’s photos of nude lesbian couples, calling the work “immoral, offensive and going against nation-building,” according to the Guardian.
Muholi refutes claims that their work is in any way obscene, or that homosexuality is “un-African.” To further the fight against such thinking in South Africa, they’ve taken their activism outside of the gallery: In 2002, they co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, which advocates for the rights of black lesbians in South Africa, and they registered Inkanyiso, a collective for queer activism and visual media, in 2009.
Further afield, Muholi participated in an 18-month residency and exhibition at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center for their first major US-based project, “The Women’s Mobile Museum,” working with 10 local women to develop photography and visual storytelling skills, empowering them to tell their own stories through portraiture.
“I want people to think of my work as a form of education, because without education we are nothing,” Muholi said. “I want the next generation of young queers and non-queers to know that we are here, that we were here. We owe it to ourselves to make sense of our lives and living.”
Top image: Detail of “Katiso Kgope, Daveyton, Johannesburg” (2017) by Zanele Muholi