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Zanele Muholi – a visual activist addressing and confronting fear

Writing: Hannah Rothmann

Zanele Muholi is a South African visual activist. They prefer the term visual activist in contrast to artist as their work challenges ‘hetero-patriarchal ideologies and representations’. [1]

Muholi was born in 1972 in Umlazi (Durban) and grew up during apartheid in South Africa, a country which today continues to feel the scars from such a racially oppressive regime. Despite being, in many aspects, a liberal society - with South Africa becoming the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2006 and having held one of the most liberal constitutions in the world since its implementation in 1994 - there are still issues threatening the country including homophobia, xenophobia and racism. Since the early 2000s, Muholi’s work has sought to document the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa, looking at the violence and discrimination this community is still subject to, as well as considering their own role as the visual activist to ‘humanise the other’, in order to present the community not as victims but rather create recognition and a space for them.

Only half the picture from 2003-2006 was their first body of work and this work clarifies Muholi’s intentions. To address the issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community in this way was a first and it gives this community in South Africa a space within the art world. In 2009 the Minister of Arts and Culture was invited to open an exhibition for Muholi, after which he walked out, announcing the work to be ‘immoral’ and ‘against nation building’. [2] The opposition that Muholi received here clearly shows there are still attitudes prevalent that believe that being a member of this community is not ‘African’. A later series, Faces and Phases, is ongoing and documents black lesbian and trans women from Muholi’s local community. The work sets out to acknowledge the pain and trauma these people have gone through and to represent them, with Muholi’s self-proclaimed mission being ‘to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond.’ [3] The piece was shortlisted for the 2015 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize (Faces and Phases 2006-2014).

Muholi began a series of works in 2012 entitled Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), formed from an array of self-portraits which may more accurately be called ‘self-projections’. The idea behind this is ‘unapologetic self-hood’. This is important because as Muholi became more sought after on an international stage, their work took them to spaces that were historically white-dominated. In many of the self-projections Muholi stares out with an assertive but non-aggressive look which enforces their presence to the observer and their presence in these spaces. These self-projections are taken around the world, but the titles are in Zulu, Muholi’s own language. The saturation levels on these monochromatic images are increased to emphasise the blackness of the image here and her own blackness. One of the ‘self-projections’, Ziphelele, Parktown (2016), uses the everyday item of bicycle tyres. However, the placement of them around Muholi’s head is historically loaded as it is a reference to the mob violence and necklacing which took place during apartheid. [4] Necklacing was used by people to punish those who were thought to be informers to the apartheid government; it involved filling a bicycle tyre with petrol, placing it around someone’s neck and then setting it alight.

Another series, Brave Beauties is about recognising beauty. Muholi photographs trans women in their own environment and reinforces the idea that being beautiful is not always dependent on what society decides beauty is. This touches upon the history of beauty within South Africa where up until 1991 only a white woman could be Miss South Africa, as well as confronting the image of beauty portrayed within the media. Again, this seeks to empower ‘the other’ and confront the violent discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community within South Africa. All of Muholi’s work challenges and confronts the observer about their beliefs and the treatment of the people presented in Muholi’s work. This work gives a sense of hope for the increasing acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community within South Africa, as well as those that continue to be marginalised across the world, challenging the homophobia and racism that exists universally.

See Zanele Muholi’s exhibition at the Tate Modern, London on from the 29th April to the 18th October 2020. There is also an artist talk hosted at the Tate Modern on the 29th April. Details of ticket prices are on the website and if you are a student be sure to look at the Tate Collective for £5 tickets for exhibitions.


Image: via Wikipedia

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