Muholi, Zanele


South African, b. 1972; lives in Umbumbulu, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


Zanele Muholi describes themself as a “visual activist.” Their work draws attention to the invisibility and intolerance that is often felt by Black South African lesbians and transgender individuals. Although the country’s Constitution ensures equality to all citizens and allows same-sex marriages, these policies are rarely enforced and protected by government officials. With great subtlety and tenderness, Muholi’s black-and-white photographs in Faces and Phases (2006–ongoing) portray black LGBTQIA+ people from different places and professions. Adopting a serial-portrait format, Muholi has created a “wall of fame” to honor those individuals that their society denigrates as a faceless group.

Muholi’s strategy of appropriation and alteration engages with the archive of “ethnographic” motifs that are still being circulated to represent Africa and Africans, repeating “native” stereotypes time and again. Ms Le Sishi I (2010) and Miss D’vine I (2007) are naked to the waist and adorned in reproduction Zulu beadwork to reference this pictorial tradition. However, far from being sited in an “ethnic” enclave or a pristine wilderness, Miss D’vine poses gracefully against the dry, crumbling outskirts of a town. The detritus of city living strewn around her feet—clad in blood-red stilettos—stages a sharp contrast to the surrounding golden savannah grass. While referencing a particular pictorial legacy, the subversive gender queering set forth in the composition complicates historical representations of female positions and deflates the power of such oppressive images.

Artworks by Muholi, Zanele

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