Zanele Muholi

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Zanele Muholi

Muholi at the 2011 International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
Born (1972-07-19) 19 July 1972 (age 51)
NationalitySouth African
EducationMarket Photo Workshop, MFA in Ryerson University
Known forPhotography
AwardsMbokodo Award (Visual Art) for South African Women in the Arts

Zanele Muholi FRPS (born 19 July 1972) is a South African artist and visual activist working in photography, video, and installation. Muholi's work focuses on race, gender and sexuality with a body of work that dates back to the early 2000's, documenting and celebrating the lives of South Africa's Black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex communities. Muholi is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns,[1] explaining that "I'm just human".[2]

Muholi was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2015. They received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in 2016, a Chevalier de Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2016, and an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2018.

Muholi had a restrospective exhibition on at Maison européenne de la photographie in Paris from 1st February to 25th May, 2023.[3] Their work was also shown that year at Mudec-Museo delle Culture in Milan, from 31st March through 30th July, 2023, showcasing 60 self-portraits in black and white chosen especially for Mudec.[4]


Zanele Muholi was born and raised in Umlazi, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Their father was Ashwell Tanji Banda Muholi and their mother was Bester Muholi. They are the youngest of eight children. Muholi's father died shortly after their birth,[2] and their mother was a domestic worker who had to leave her children to work for a white family during Apartheid in South Africa.[5] Muholi was raised by an extended family.[5]

Muholi has described themselves as a visual activist as opposed to an artist.[5][6][7] They are dedicated to increasing the visibility of black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people. They researched and documented the stories of hate crimes against the LGBTQI community in order to bring forth the realities of "corrective rape,"[8] assault, and HIV/AIDS, to public attention.

They hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto and were appointed Honorary Professor – video and photography at the University of the Arts Bremen in Germany.[9]

In 2014, they presented at the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town.[10]

Muholi was a speaker at WorldPride Madrid Summit 2017. They co-chaired the Madrid Summit Declaration with Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Myrna Cunningham and Gopi Shankar Madurai.[11]


Muholi completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2003, and held their first solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004. In 2009 they were awarded their Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto. Their thesis mapped the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-Apartheid South Africa.[12]

On 28 October 2013, they were appointed Honorary Professor – video and photography at the University of the Arts Bremen in Germany.[9]


Muholi's photography has been compared to the way W.E.B. DuBois subverted the typical representations of African Americans. Both Muholi and Du Bois have created an archive of photos, working to dismantle dominant, pre-existing perceptions of the subjects they chose to photograph. Muholi views their work as collaborative, referring to the individuals they photograph as "participants" rather than as subjects. Seeking to empower their subjects, Muholi often invites participants to speak at events and exhibitions, adding the participant's voice to the conversation.[13] Through their artistic approach they hope to document the journey of the African queer community as a record for future generations. They try to capture the moment without negativity or focusing on the prevalent violence, portraying the LGBTQI community as individuals and as a whole to encourage unity.[7][14][15][16][17] Thus, their work can be considered documentative, recording the overall community LGBTI of South Africa and their challenges, and at times, more specifically the struggle of black lesbians. Before 1994, black lesbian voices were excluded from the making of a formal queer movement. Muholi's efforts of creating a more positive visualization of LGBTI Africans combats the homophobic-motivated violence that is prevalent in South Africa today, especially in the case of black lesbians. While black women's bodies appear frequently throughout sexualized pop-culture, black lesbians are viewed (through the lens of the patriarchy and heteronormativity) as undesirable. This negative view of homosexuals in Africa lead to violence, such as murder and rape, and rejection from their families. Muholi's Zukiswa (2010), shows an African lesbian woman making eye contact with the viewer, displaying an unwavering gaze of confidence, self-awareness, and determination. This example encourages awareness, acceptance, and positivity with the queer community as well as South Africa.[18]

Although Muholi became known as a photographer who engaged with the then-invisible lives of black lesbians in South Africa, they began to recognize this idea of "gender within gender." In 2003, and their sense of community definitively began to include trans people. Muholi was employed as a photographer and reporter for Behind the Mask,[19] an online magazine on LGBTI issues in Africa.

Muholi first received global attention from the art world in 2012 at Documenta, a world-famous exhibition of modern and contemporary art in (Germany), for a series of portraits of lesbians and transgender participants titled: Faces and Phases.[5] The photos were also exhibited at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.[5]

Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture (2004)[edit]

Muholi launched their visual activism through their first solo exhibition entitled Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004. This exhibition featured photographs of survivors of rape and hate crimes as well as an image of a rape and an assault case number. The artist explicitly captures the images as to not reveal the person's gender. The viewer may only have access to an above the knee, and hip shot with hands over the genital region. In contrast to their later exhibitions, the people in these images remain anonymous. Although homosexuality is technically protected legally under the South African government, many individuals do not exercise their legal rights publicly in fear of violent backlash. There is also a reluctance to report cases of hate crimes since officials will often ridicule the victim and nothing will be accomplished. This is a systematic use of violence and oppression. In Only Half the Picture series, the artist was able to give LGBT people a voice without ousting their anonymity. Their work is mostly about bringing visibility of queer people in the black community.

Faces and Phases (2006–ongoing)[edit]

In 2006, Muholi began their Faces and Phases project, a series of around three hundred portraits of lesbians, shot in front of plain or patterned backgrounds.[20][21] Muholi's concern for their participant's safety dictated that all pictured individuals be of age and fully out.[22] Faces and Phases mocks the "art-in-service-to-science" narrative engrained in colonial images. 18th century botany imagery shows various plants plucked from their natural environment therefore erasing any social or cultural context. This practice emphasizes Western discovery of an object without acknowledging its longstanding existence. According to Susan Kart at Grove Art Online, this project "documents victims of sexual assault and hate crimes, the wedding images share moments of victory, acceptance, and joy for LGBTI families."[23] In Faces and Phases, Muholi utilizes this history and compares it to the representation of LGBTI in South Africa. Black queer individuals have increased drastically in national representation but this is still an erasure of important context. These individuals are represented in the same way as the botanical prints. There is increased visibility for Western consumption but no attention is paid to the suffering and systematic oppression these individuals face in post-apartheid South Africa. Muholi challenges this in their series by providing names, dates, locations, and representing the participants within a public sphere. Without captions, the photographs could fall under the normalized gaze of the West.

In June 2014, Muholi was back at their alma mater, showing Faces and Phases[24] at the Ryerson Image Centre as part of WorldPride.[25] In the same month they showed at the Singapore International Arts Festival's O.P.E.N. where they also spoke on legacies of violence.[26]

Innovative Women (2009)[edit]

In 2009, the Innovative Women exhibition was shown in South Africa in the cities of Durban and Cape Town. It was curated by painter Bongi Bhengu and features their work as well as 9 other artists including Muholi and photographer Nandipha Mntambo.[27] In August 2009, the Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana walked out of the exhibition due to Muholi's photography, calling it immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.[27] In their response Muholi said "It's paralysing. I expected people to think before they act, and to ask questions. I wanted to create dialogue."[28]

Trans(figures) (2010–2011)[edit]

Their Trans(figures) (2010–2011) project embraces lesbian and trans life. The portraits are taken in urban and rural settings in South Africa and internationally.[29][30]

Of Love & Loss (2014)[edit]

Muholi's 2014 exhibition, Of Love & Loss, focused on the violence and hate crimes experienced by members of the LGBTQIA communities in South Africa.[31] Juxtaposing images of weddings and funerals, the show included photographs, video works and installation elements. An element of autobiography featured images of Muholi and their partner. This exhibition furthermore exemplifies why Muholi calls themself a visual activist rather than an artist and it shows their battle scars.[32] They bring these harsh issues into light[33] with such powerful contrast, as a way to show resistance.[33][34] Muholi calls this as just one of their many responsibilities, and these harsh and cruel realities cannot be ignored.[35][36]

Brave Beauties (2014)[edit]

A series focusing on capturing the portraits of transwomen, Brave Beauties was shot outside the studio and on location throughout South Africa. This "mobile studio"[37] was a further expression of Muholi's celebration of LGBTQIA visibility as equal citizens of their country, an embrace of artistic freedom and a gesture of rejecting the limitations that studios can present. While on show at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, an "activist wall" encouraged the participants to write directly on the gallery walls about their experiences, stories and vision. A gesture of destabilization, the activist wall was another expression of Muholi's desire to empower the participants in their work.

Isibonelo/Evidence (2015)[edit]

In 2015, Muholi presented 87 works in their solo Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum.[38] The meaning of the show's title, in which "Isibonelo" roughly translates from Zulu to "evidence," referred to its contents, which were split into three main sections separated on three walls. The first featured a decade-long chronology of hate crimes in South Africa, and faced the second, which was covered in handwritten messages from members of the LGBTQIA communities. The third and final wall consisted of portraits, including one of Muholi themself.[39]

Somnyama Ngonyama ("Hail the Dark Lioness") (2012–present)[edit]

In 2014 Muholi began working on 365 self portraits for the series Somnyama Ngonyama.[40][41][42] The portraits are alter egos, often with a Zulu name.[5] Of this series, the writer and cultural historian Maurice Berger has this to say: "The self-portraits function on various levels and pay homage to the history of black women in Africa and beyond, the dark lionesses of the book’s title. They reimagine black identity in ways that are largely personal but inevitably political. And they challenge the stereotypes and oppressive standards of beauty that often ignore people of color."[43]

This series had a debut exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York in 2015.[44] It was shown in London in 2017[6] and in Times Square in New York City as digital billboards during the city's autumn 2017 Performa Biennial festival.[5] Previews in Muholi's New York gallery were sold out.[5] The photos were published in a 2018 book published by Aperture.[5]


In 2002, Muholi co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organization dedicated to providing a safe space for women to meet and organize.[6]

Inkanyiso (2009)[edit]

In 2009, Muholi founded Inkanyiso[45] ("illuminate" in Zulu[2]), a non-profit organisation concerned with queer visual activism.[6] It is involved with visual arts and media advocacy for and on behalf of the LGBTI community. The organization's vision statement is "Produce. Educate. Disseminate."

Women's Mobile Museum (2018)[edit]

In 2018, Muholi collaborated with photographer Lindeka Qampi, and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC), to create and mentor a cohort of women artists in Philadelphia. Called the Women's Mobile Museum, the collaborative project culminated in a special exhibition at the PPAC featuring works by the participating artists.[46] According to art critic Megan Voeller: "For nearly nine months, they underwent a professional boot camp at PPAC, starting with technical workshops in digital camerawork, lighting and Photoshop and progressing to assembling and promoting an exhibition."[47]

Somnyama Ngonyama (2021)[edit]

In 2021, Muholi produced a colouring book of their exhibition Somnyama Ngonyama to engage South-African children who are categorised as youth until the age of 35, as a result of the apartheid. Workshops teaching photography and painting were organised in parallel to provide the opportunity of an art education to underprivileged regions. The matter is of personal concern to the artist as someone who grew up under similar circumstances faced with conditions that they are still trying to 'break through' today. 'My activism now focuses on education and building arts infrastructure in places that are rural or still considered peripheral,' Muholi tells Ocula Magazine.[48]


In 2010, Muholi co-directed their documentary Difficult Love,[49] which was commissioned by SABC.[50] It has shown in South Africa, USA, Spain, Sweden, UK, Amsterdam, Paris (Festival Cinefable) and Italy. In 2013, Muholi co-directed a documentary called We Live in Fear, released by Human Rights Watch.[51]

Attacks and robberies[edit]

On 20 April 2012, Muholi's flat in Vredehoek was robbed, with over twenty primary and back-up external hard drives containing five years' worth of photos and video being stolen with their laptop. Photos contained therein include records of the funerals of Black South African lesbians murdered in hate crimes. Nothing else was stolen, raising suspicions that Muholi's recordings of Black lesbian life was targeted. Muholi was overseas at the time of the robbery.[52][53] This effectively erased the previous five years of Muholi's work. A few weeks later they said, "I'm still traumatized by the burglary" and, "It's hard to fall asleep in this place, which is now a crime scene, as I dealt with many crime scenes before."[54]

In July 2017, a collaborator of Muholi's, Sibahle Nkumbi, was pushed down a staircase in Amsterdam by their Airbnb host while visiting the Netherlands to cover the opening of Muholi's exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum.[55] Nkumbi was hospitalised, sustaining a concussion and substantial bruising. Video footage of the confrontation subsequently went viral, and the host was charged with attempted manslaughter.[56]


  • Zanele Muholi: Only Half The Picture. Cape Town: Michael Stevenson, 2006. ISBN 0-620361468.
  • Faces and Phases. Munich; Berlin; London; New York: Prestel, 2010. ISBN 978-3-7913-4495-9.
  • Zanele Muholi. African Women Photographers #1. Granada, Spain: Casa África/La Fábrica, 2011. ISBN 978-8-4150-3466-7.
  • Faces + Phases 2006–14. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2014. ISBN 978-3-86930-807-4.
  • Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness. Renée Mussai (author), Zanele Muholi (photographer), et al., New York: Aperture, 2018, ISBN 978-1597114240.


Solo exhibitions[edit]

Group exhibitions[edit]

  • 2011: Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England[64]
  • 2016: Systematically Personae at the FotoFocus Biennal, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, OH, USA
  • 2017: Art/Afrique, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, France[65]
  • 2018: Half the Picture: A Feminist Look at the Collection, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY, USA[66]
  • 2018: Legacy of the Cool: A Tribute to Barkley L. Hendricks, MassArt Art Museum (MAAM), Boston, MA, USA[67]
  • 2019: Yithi Laba. A group exhibition by Lindeka Qampi, Neo Ntsoma, Zanele Muholi, Ruth Seopedi Motau and Berni Searle at Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg, South Africa[68]
  • 2019: 58th Venice Biennale curated by Ralph Rugoff[69]
  • 2020: Radical Revisionists: Contemporary African Artists Confronting Past and Present, Moody Center for the Arts, Houston, TX, USA[70]
  • 2020: Through an African Lens: Sub-Saharan Photography from the Museum's Collection, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, TX, USA[71]

Curated exhibitions[edit]



Muholi's work is held in the following public collections:


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External links[edit]