South African Lesbian Photographer Activist: Zanele Muholi’s Exhibits New Portraits

July 06, 2011, by Melanie Nathan,

Photo by Zanele Muholi

Inkanyiso brings together three new bodies of photographic work: new portraits in the ongoing series Faces and Phases (2010-11); Beulahs (2007-10) and Transfigures (2010-11), and the documentary Difficult Love (2010). As always, Muholi is upfront about her agenda as an activist, seeking to educate the viewer on ‘the complexities and fluidity of gender’. The title of the show, Inkanyiso, means ‘illumination’ or ‘light’ in Zulu, and it is Muholi’s aim to ‘shine a light onto viewers’ understanding of gender and sexuality’.

She writes:

“Inkanyiso speaks about the complexities of gender and sexuality terminologies in which lesbianism or gayness (homosexuality) equals sexual orientation, and trans-genderism equals gender. Inkanyiso presents those who have given of themselves to shed a light on the vast issues that continue to affect sexual minorities, especially black queers.

These are people found in spaces that are sometimes disadvantaged. They are the ones who want to but cannot express themselves freely without fearing atrocious prejudice for being themselves.”

The exhibition includes a grid of new black and white portraits of black lesbians and ‘transfigures’ from the Faces and Phases series which Muholi began in 2006. Selected images were published by Prestel in 2010, receiving a nomination as best photobook of the year at the International Photobook Festival in Kassel, Germany. The series was included on the 29th São Paulo Biennale (2010), and will feature on Face of Our Time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (3 July to 16 October 2011). Sixty-six new images were shown for the first time on Art Statements at Art Basel in June 2011. The new portraits were taken in places ranging from Gauteng, Cape Town, Mafikeng and Botswana to Sweden.

Difficult Love, Muholi’s personal documentary about the challenges facing black lesbians in South Africa today, will be shown for the first time in a gallery space. The award-winning documentary has been seen – and continues to show – at film festivals around the world.


Thursday, July 7 · 6:00pm – 9:00pm

STEVENSON Johannesburg

62 Juta Street
Johannesburg, Gauteng

About Zanele Muholi

My earlier Article about Zanele

Sweden: Video Zanele Muholi Lesbian Photographer Breaks Boundaries for Africa – 

Melanie Nathan- March 31- 2011

One of the pieces I have written and been savoring for publication is about my very dear friend, Zanele Muholi.  Zanele is a rare human being – modest, selfless, committed and extraordinarily talented.  She expresses her love through her lens – her art – and her opinion and soul is solidly portrayed in every image.

As soon as I arrived in Cape Town Zanele and I found each other – always camera in hand, video cam and sound recorder.   Her technique , a fine art in itself.  She is never without her set of equipment and there is not a moment that she does not photograph and film and record.

Zanele has her group of supporters whom I call the “super supporters” – a cut above the fans and the rest of the world which appreciates the enormity of her work.  The ‘Super Supporters’ include a group of young women, lesbians, many of whom have been beaten, raped and abused in the most brutal of ways.  However they are alive and they have heeded the call of Zanele.  You see, I call them ‘Super Supporters’ because at no time has Zanele ever aimed her camera at a victim.  In her purview of those who may otherwise have been ‘victim’ –  morphs graduates – survivors and then merge leaders.

She does this by placing a camera in the hand of every young township lesbian who crosses her path.

“Shoot everything you see,” says Zanele – “record everything – you will participate in history – with this Camera in your hand ,”  she insists as the young women gratefully embrace their new-found reason for life and leadership.   She teaches them, shares her art, records their life and empowers with each and every focus -!

“Meza, (my African name) I have a huge archive and recorded so much. I want to follow you everywhere and record your trip to here in Cape Town.”  How can anyone refuse her mission – so pure and loving – and so we went everywhere together – Cape Town Pink Gala, Cape Town Pride, Meetings, Drag Shows, but the highlight of my time with Zanele lay in the most ominous of days – a story in itself – when she insisted that my journey to  Khayelitsha (1) where I would be attending the 32nd trial date in a five year period  for the murder trial for Zoliswa, the nineteen year old Lesbian, who had been stoned to death by a murderous group of 20 young men, be routed and experienced true Township Lesbian Style.   The subject of another story to come.

I will never forget that day. The house you will see in the Video below and the young women – all hosted me on that difficult trial day. It would not have been the experience had it not been for Zanele Muholi and the requirement of her lens.

After three taxi-buses – housing 15 singing lesbians – mostly from the same soccer team –  from the Court house and a walk through  slurs, ” I will fix your fucking lesbianism…and more”  we sat in a circle in the same house shown in the Video below, the safe haven provided by Funeka of Free Gender –  it was there that I found out that the young survivors are all poised for leadership – all they need is to be empowered with money for cable (R300 per house per month = $45.00)  and computers,  the other piece to empower these new leaders – in the same way as Zanele provides cameras at her own expense – I realized we must make this available to these extraordinary young women who endure so much, each and every day.    They live in hovel shanties – afraid to leave the shacks unless in large groups – and I had just had a taste of the very hat that flies in the face of South Africa’s all inclusive and equality based constitution.

In the meantime – I invite you to watch the Video below to get a sense of Zanele – I will be writing more on my experiences in the Township, at the Trial. Zanela showing up to the meeting in parliament and my amazing Interview organized by and filmed by Zanele.

(1)  Khayelitsha (pronounced /ˌkaɪ.əˈliːtʃə/) the informal township in Western Cape, South Africa, located on the Cape Flats in the City of Cape Town. The name is Xhosa for New Home. It is reputed to be the largest and the fastest growing township in South Africa.

When we parted ways this month, Zanele was on her way to Sweden – she travels the world for exhibitions – the latest “Difficult Love” represented in Sweden – can be viewed in the interview below.

Zanele’s Web site :-

2009 NEWS: Zanele Muholi won the Casa Africa award for best female photographer and a Fondation Blachère award at Les Rencontres de Bamako biennial of African photography (2009). She also received a Fanny Ann Eddy accolade from IRN-Africa for her outstanding contributions in the study of sexuality in Africa, at the Genders & Sexualities in Africa Conference held in Syracuse, New York. She is included on Museion Collection: New acquisitions at the Museion – Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Bolzano, Italy (until 14 February 2010); A Life Less Ordinary: Performance and display in South African art at Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, UK (5 September – 15 November); and Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA (10 September – 5 December).

BIOGRAPHY :-  Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban, in 1972. She completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown and held her first solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004.

Muholi has worked as a community relations officer for the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organization based in Gauteng, and as a photographer and reporter for Behind the Mask, an online magazine on lesbian and gay issues in Africa. Her work represents the black female body in a frank yet intimate way that challenges the history of the portrayal of black women’s bodies in documentary photography. Her solo exhibition Only half the picture, which showed at Michael Stevenson in March 2006, travelled to the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg and the Afrovibes Festival in Amsterdam.

In 2008 she had a solo show at Le Case d’Arte, Milan, and in 2009 she exhibited alongside Lucy Azubuike at the CCA Lagos, Nigeria.

Zanele was the recipient of the 2005 Tollman Award for the Visual Arts, the first BHP Billiton/Wits University Visual Arts Fellowship in 2006, and was the 2009 Ida Ely Rubin Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Full CV

Zanele – Working with you and watching was and remains a great honor my sister… mel

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