I stumbled upon the South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s visual activism when I was 16, on a solo trip to the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. I had a crush on a guy who studied there, and I made visits to the gallery part of my routine, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Instead, I discovered photographs that would make a huge impression on my life, politics, and activism.
The photos exhibited there were mostly of black South Africans, and they honestly and boldly documented life following Apartheid. Many of the images showed people living in poor, formerly segregated townships—very different from my comfortable, middle-class, teenage existence—but I recognized part of myself in their bodies because of our skin and what it means in this country. And then, for the first time, I saw this photograph by Muholi:
A woman stands in a spare room that is typical of the houses in townships, inspecting bandages she is using to bind her breasts. I’d heard of the practice of breast binding, but I’d never seen it up close, and I immediately felt gratitude towards Muholi and this woman for inviting me, a stranger, into such a private moment. In South Africa, where there is rampant violence against women (particularly black women, who are in the poor majority), and where hate crimes against the LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and intersex) community often go unpunished, publicly diverging from the gender you’re assigned at birth can be very, very dangerous. This photograph shocked me with its bravery. It helped me realize that there was more to womanhood than what was in the “get married to a man and have babies” script—that it’s a complicated identity that deserves to exist, without fear, regardless of how it is expressed.
That’s the remarkable thing about Muholi and her photography: She uses her camera to demand respect for black, queer, often poor women. Before encountering her work, I’d never seen art that was so evidently and deeply invested in portraying the dignity of its subjects. Muholi’s photographs are special to me because they help me see myself in the struggles and triumphs of other South Africans.
Muholi was born in Durban in 1972. She established herself as a black, lesbian photographer in Johannesburg after completing studies at Market Photo Workshop in 2003, about a decade after Apartheid ended. Today, someone’s quality of life—whether they are in the shifting category of “us” or “the other”—continues to be determined by their location on intersecting spectrums of race, class, gender, and sexuality. (In the Western Cape province, for example, “the fear of sexual assault is a reality for 44% of white lesbian women and 86% of black lesbian women.”) Muholi’s art teaches, protests, and reinforces the humanity of individuals who society would rather violate or ignore.
South Africa’s constitution forbids discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, but crimes against queer and transgender citizens are widespread. “Corrective” or “curative” rape is a common, sickening, homophobic practice in which lesbians are violently raped by men to “correct” them into “becoming” straight. In certain cases, the women are also brutally murdered. Starting in 2013, Muholi traveled the country to photograph the funerals of lesbian women, some of whom were murdered in hate crimes. But as a part of the same project, Of Love And Loss, she also documented lesbian weddings:
“We’re talking transparently about these hate crimes but there’s never any solutions; we talk openly about the Constitution but there are ongoing hate crimes in this country,” she said in a recent interview. “We talk openly about ‘curative’ rapes in this country, but how do we talk about love-making between women?”
Muholi is one of the few who outspokenly presents evidence of all of the above. People have attempted to intimidate and silence her in the process (in 2012, someone broke into her home and stole her archive) but she hasn’t backed down from her mission:
The preservation and mapping of our herstories is the only way for us black lesbians to be visible… My work is about observing and taking action… I have seen people speaking and capturing images of lesbians on our behalf, as if we are incapable and mute. I have witnessed this at Gay Pride events, at academic conferences, in the so-called women’s movement forums. Research opened my eyes even wider than the lens, and it made me feel autonomous. I refused to become subject matter for others and to be silenced. Many have exiled our female African bodies: by colonizers, by researchers, by men. Sarah Baartman became a spectacle for Europeans, and she died in a foreign land. She was never given a chance to speak for herself. It is for this reason that I say ‘No, not yet another black body.’
The South African media rarely acknowledges the LGBTQI community, with the exception of stereotypical depictions of gay men as “fashion experts” and “drama queens.” The word inkanyiso means “light” in isiZulu; in 2009, Muholi established Inkanyiso, a media collective that increases visibility and accurate representations of queer South Africans. Muholi also speaks candidly at conferences and exhibitions around the world, and in 2011 released Difficult Love, a documentary about her life and work. In this interview about the film, she explains that her goal isn’t only to record the violence that black lesbians face, but also the families and lives they build together:
Zanele Muholi has helped me see that feminism and LGBTQI activism are politics of love. Her work refutes the lie that black, queer women’s bodies and lives do not matter in South Africa (and that keeps me motivated in my own mission of educating young women in marginalized communities about sexual health and their right to assert themselves in intimate relationships). I am in awe of her courage. ♦