Zanele Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist. Her main body of work revolves around bringing light to the importance of black lesbian women in South Africa. Her most recent project, titled “Faces and Phases” captures the black gay community in South Africa, in an attempt to ensure queer black visibility. In her words; “Faces expresses the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another,”. In her work, she tries not to focus on the negativity surrounding homosexuality in Africa, rather focusing on the individual themselves, mainly doing so through portraiture. As a visual activist, she has also been known to use her own menstrual blood in her work.
Muholi’s first experience in photography was when she completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2003, and held her first solo photo exhibition in Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004. In 2009, she achieved her Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media. She then went on to be employed as a photographer and reporter for Behind the Mask, where she reported stories of hate crimes against the gay community in order to bring forth the realities of “corrective rape”, assault, and HIV/AIDS, to public attention. When her mother started to fall ill, Muholi started to photograph her, and says she thinks it’s a pity we don’t tend to look at ourselves and our immediate spaces and how the outside world becomes familiar and easier for us to deal with than our own personal issues. Her mother died in 2009 of liver cancer. She was always supportive of Zanele and her mission to highlight the discrimination in her home country.
Zanele’s “Faces and Phases” project has been going for 10 years, starting in 2006. Although same sex marriage was legalised in 2006, there has still been a high amount of discrimination against this community. Muholi’s work has been exhibited globally and she had her first large-scale museum exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum on May – November 2015. In 2008, Zanele broadened her photos by involving women from other countries, as there were xenophobic and homophobic attacks that led to the mass displacement of people in South Africa. She also made a film in 2010 titled Difficult Love, in which she highlights these issues and aims 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”.
I personally like her work because it portrays exactly what I like to portray in my own work; real emotion and meaning behind the image. Also, pro-LGBTQ photographers are predominantly American/European, so it’s refreshing to see somebody whom is taking part in this initiative in a much more dangerous country. Furthermore, she firsthand has the experiences in what she is photographing, being an African lesbian herself, making her work a lot more meaningful and allowing for more trust in her photographs.