Artistfacts: Zanele Muholi

Artistfacts: Zanele Muholi


Zanele Muholi is a very talented and courageous South African photographer and social activist, she is also a very highly decorated one, and I do not mean dressed and adorned, thought that too does occur in her photographs. She just was awarded France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, their highest order for the arts.


Zanele Muholi’s art is political. Through her photographs, she is exposing the dangers, pleasures, day to day lives and diversity of black, queer, lesbian and transgendered individuals in South Africa. Muholi exposes South Africa’s mixed attitude towards gender and sexual orientation;  although LGBTQ–protection is written into  its constitution and it is the only country in Africa to recognize same-sex marriage,  violence and harassment, including “corrective rape”  and murders are still common.  Zanele herself has been targeted.  In 2012, her home was burglarized and hard drives containing eight years of work were stolen. She describes herself as a political activist, not an artist.


Her artistic practice is made up of three major series. The first was the series Only Half the Picture where she photographed friends and acquaintances,  modifying their appearances but also exposing the injuries inflicted on them by violence.


The second, Faces and Phases and Brave Beauties is made up of close up portraits of the LGBTQ community. Within this series over two hundred and fifty people have gazed frankly, shyly, proudly, or defiantly at Muholi’s camera, including the artist herself. Her photographs show proud individuals,  confident,  owning the spaces they live in. The idea of community is extremely important to her. Apparently she travels with a large group, not an entourage but more a mutual support network comprised of other artists, friends…in 2012, for a project in Paris, she brought a whole soccer team to the famous Parc des Princes stadium — with the constant that all are South African, black, and queer, lesbian, or trans folk.

Her latest series and in my opinion the most powerful and compelling one is called either My Year as a Dark Lioness or Hail the Dark Lioness depending on how  the zulu “Somnyama Ngonyama” is interpreted. Within this series, Zanele Muholi is planning to have 365 self portraits, one for every day of a year. Reading her interviews and commentaries of these portraits, they are the works that have the most intense emotional meaning for her and are the more difficult for her to make. The intensity of her engagement comes across and compels the viewer’s consideration. In these works, Zanele Muholi appears unsmiling, confrontational and at the same time shy and exposed,  with piercing eyes staring out at the camera. Her skin is very black, darkened for the pictures.  She has said: “In America, Europe, Africa, the experience is never the same. But that judgment, that discrimination, that lingering sense that you are not supposed to be here persists, having to continually justify your presence.” These self portraits, force the viewer to engage. You are being judged for your attitude, your willingness or unwillingness to accept and understand the person staring out at you.

Each portrait has a name. It might reference someone she knows, or a woman whose contribution to South Africa has been erased in patriarchal history. Each title mentions the location at which the photo is taken, becoming a diary of both Muholi’s extensive traveling and of the many places where black bodies are still unwelcome.

Muholi makes her self-portraits where her travels take her, absorbing those experiences into the process, using found materials or ones she buys in local shops. “I work in any space that is given to me, and I use it in ways that work for me,” she says. She likes to shoot in natural light. Earlier this year, she was in Amsterdam, where she had an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum; there, one of her entourage, the filmmaker Sibahle Nkumbi, got pushed down a flight of stairs by an aggressive Airbnb host. Muholi channeled the experience  into a self-portrait as a Dutch Renaissance aristocrat in black coat with elaborate white neck ruff and cuffs, hands crossed, eyes appraising.

She has said: “Somnyama Ngonyama is about self-representation. It’s me looking at particular political issues that still affect us as human beings and I’m drawing on very real historical events in South Africa, and beyond South African borders. I used my own body to speak on issues of race for instance and focussed mainly on the importance of blackness. What does it mean to be Black today? I explored that question through and through.” She is also exploring inequality, minimum wage, displacement, death and violence.

In certain works she is responding to very specific events and using materials and her body to do that. For example in one of the images she wears a safety hat, a symbol of the men at the centre of the Marikana Massacre in 2012 wore when 112 men  were shot,  34 killed as they walked out on strike at a platinum mine in South Africa.

In others to more general issues of society inequalities. These works are commentaries not only on events in her life, but also on the destruction of the environment, the destruction of ancestral traditions, the brutality of society, the violation and politics of blackness. In one work,  she has cable ties around her body. As she has said: “When you look at cable ties you think functionality, they are often used to lock suitcases, protect possessions and to keep people away. For me here, they become a sign of social brutality, imprisonment, and exploitation. So basically, it says something about how people use common materials in different ways and moving beyond the expected, the stereotyped and the prescribed.” In another money is woven throughout her hair. In a third, she is wrapped in what appears to be trash bags.

The messages and locations contained within the works provide clues to the viewer through the “props” or materials such as the cable ties, the elaborate hairstyles, the blanket from a police cell, hairpins, tubes, plastic gloves, a stool.  She has said:”We all have skeletons in our closet. I’m just a troubled human being, and I decided not to see a shrink, but instead to use photography. After taking photographs I feel better, because I feel that I have achieved something.” She definitely has in my mind as her images continue to haunt long after one has left the gallery.

In 2009, Muholi founded Inkanyiso, a non profit organization dedicated to visual art, media advocacy and visual literacy training for South Africa’s LGBTQI community and Forum for the Empowerment of Women

She is represented by Yancey Richardson and Stephenson