Zanele Muholi

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Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi. Festival «Side by Side».JPG
Muholi at the 2011 International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
Born (1972-07-19) 19 July 1972 (age 46)
NationalitySouth African
EducationMarket Photo Workshop, MFA in Ryerson University
Known forPhotography
AwardsMbokodo Award (Visual Art) for South African Women in the Arts

Zanele Muholi (born 19 July) 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 looking at black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex individuals.

Muholi was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2015. She 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.


Zanele Muholi was born on 19 July in Umlazi, Durban, and raised there. Her father was Ashwell Tanji Banda Muholi and her mother was Bester Muholi. She is the youngest of five children. Muholi's mother was a domestic worker who had to leave her children to work for a white family during Apartheid in South Africa.[1] Muholi was raised by an extended family.[1]

Muholi completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2003, and held her first solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004. In 2009 she was awarded her Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto. Her thesis mapped the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-Apartheid South Africa.[2]

Muholi has described herself as a visual activist as opposed to an artist.[1][3][4] She is dedicated to increasing the visibility of black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people. She researched and documented the stories of hate crimes against the lgbtiq community in order to bring forth the realities of "corrective rape",[5] assault, and HIV/AIDS, to public attention.

On 28 October 2013, she was appointed Honorary Professor – video and photography at the University of the Arts Bremen in Germany.[6]

In 2014, she presented at the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town.[7]

Muholi was a speaker at WorldPride Madrid Summit 2017. She shared chair with Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Myrna Cunningham and Gopi Shankar Madurai for the Madrid Summit Declaration.[8]


Muholi's photography has been compared to that of W.E.B. DuBois— as a tool to subvert the typical representations of African Americans. Each photographer creates an archive of photos, working to dismantle dominant, pre-existing perceptions of the subjects they chose to photograph. Through her artistic approach she hopes to document the journey of the African queer community as a record for future generations. She tries 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.[4][9][10][11][12] Thus, her 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.[13]

Although Muholi became known as a photographer who engaged with the then-invisible lives of black lesbians in South Africa, she began to recognize this idea of "gender within gender." In 2003, and her sense of community definitively began to include trans people. Muholi was employed as a photographer and reporter for Behind the Mask,[14] 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.[1] The photos were also exhibited at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.[1]

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

Muholi launched her visual activism through her 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 her 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. Her work is mostly about bringing visibility of queers in the black community.

Faces and Phases (2006–ongoing)[edit]

in 2006, Muholi began her Faces and Phases project.[15][16] 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. 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 her 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 her alma mater, showing Faces and Phases[17] at the Ryerson Image Centre as part of WorldPride.[18] In the same month she showed at the Singapore International Arts Festival's O.P.E.N. where she also spoke on legacies of violence.[19]

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 her work as well as 9 other artists including Muholi and photographer Nandipha Mntambo.[20] 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.[20] In her response Muholi said "It's paralysing. I expected people to think before they act, and to ask questions. I wanted to create dialogue."[21]

Trans(figures) (2010–2011)[edit]

Her Trans(figures) (2010–2011) project embraces lesbian and trans life. The portraits are taken in urban and rural settings in South Africa and internationally.[22][23]

Isibonelo/Evidence (2015)[edit]

In 2015, Muholi presented Isibonelo/Evidence in a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. The show included eighty-seven works.[24]

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

In 2012 Muholi created a self-portrait.[3] In 2014 Muholi began working on 365 self portraits for the series Somnyama Ngonyama.[25][26][27] The portraits are alter egos, often with a Zulu name.[1]

This series had a debut exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York in 2015.[28] It was shown in London in 2017[3] and in Times Square in New York City as digital billboards during the city's autumn 2017 Performa Biennial festival.[1] Previews in Muholi's New York gallery were sold out.[1] The photos were published in a 2018 book published by Aperture.[1]


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.[3]

Inkanyiso (2009)[edit]

In 2009, Muholi founded Inkanyiso,[29] a non-profit organisation concerned with queer visual activism.[3] 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."


In 2010, Muholi co-directed her documentary Difficult Love,[30] which was commissioned by SABC.[31] 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.[32]

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 her 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.[33][34] This effectively erased the previous five years of Muholi's work. A few weeks later she 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."[35]

In July 2017, a collaborator of Muholi's, Sibahle Nkumbi, was pushed down a staircase in Amsterdam by her Airbnb host while visiting the Netherlands to cover the opening of Muholi's exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum.[36] 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.[37]


  • 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]

  • 2004: Visual Sexuality, as part of Urban Life (Market Photo Workshop exhibition), Johannesburg Art Gallery
  • 2006: Vienna Kunsthalle project space, Vienna: Slide Show
  • 2014: Faces and Phases, Massimadi Afrocaribbean LGBT international film festival, Montréal, Canada
  • 2015: Zanele Muholi: Vukani/Rise, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK[38]
  • 2015: Somnyama Ngonyama, Yancey Richardson, New York City[28]
  • 2017: Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, Autograph ABP, London[3][39]
  • 2017: Zanele Muholi Homecoming: Durban Art Gallery

Group exhibitions[edit]

Curated exhibitions[edit]



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


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External links[edit]