Zanele Muholi on archiving black South African LGBTQI

Muholi on inspirations: "Audre Lorde will always be my favorite because she informed a lot of us, gave us a new way of thinking."

Image by Zanele Muholi

Throughout the length of her career, the visual activist Zanele Muholi has worked with a clear sensitivity to the importance of positioning herself – and gay, lesbian, and transgender people as a whole – in the past, present and future of South Africa. Born in 1972 in the Umlazi township of Durban, she came to photography through an advanced course at the celebrated Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2003. Within a year, she had her first solo exhibition. Since these beginnings, she has dedicated her practice to documenting and representing the multiplicities of black sexualities and gender within South African communities, with works that engage with photographic, video and sculptural installations. Most interestingly, the work for which she is best known, Faces and Phases, takes this mandate and houses it within one of the most traditional modes of photography—portraiture.

Unapologetically exposed and carefully composed, Faces and Phases presents a glimpse into a community violently silenced within the sociopolitical realities of post-apartheid South Africa. In each portrait, the subject faces the camera frontally, with an open and direct gaze. Captured with extreme clarity, sharp details and fine tonal range, Muholi positions each figure centrally—initiating a silent, but loaded conversation between the subject and the viewer. Through Muholi’s lens, one is privy to the undeniably visible beauty, elegance and dignity of those within this community, while also being forced to confront their collective invisibility within a homophobic post-apartheid South Africa. Currently arranged in a set of sixty, set to highlight the significance of the year 1960 in both African and South African history, this series of black and white portraits presents a nuanced exploration of black female lesbian and transgender subjectivity within the galleries of the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Alongside a thoughtful selection of other works from Muholi’s corpus, the exhibition Isibonelo/Evidence gives a broad survey of her work, while continually communicating the underling social force that central to her practice.

In an interview after the opening of Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum (open until 8 November, 2015), Zanele spoke with Africa is a Country’s Remi Onabanjo about the social, historical and creative resonance of images, and how she considers her artistic practice a process of collective archive-making.

Remi Onabanjo: “Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence” is currently showing at the Brooklyn Museum. I’m interested in psychological and physical steps that led to the mounting of this exhibition in the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Why now, why there?

Zanele Muholi: You know I had to accept the Brooklyn Museum invitation, which just came at the right period in my life. South Africa is celebrating twenty-one years of democracy, so I think I’m celebrating my 21st birthday party [laughs]. It’s happy twenty-one for me, but particularly on a political level to be honoring democracy in South Africa from 1994 to 2015—that is a remarkable period, especially considering all the gains that we have won as the LGBTI community. Every time when I produce or when I respond to any call, I’m not only doing it for me, but I’m doing it for many other people who might not even imagine these spaces as possible.

I come to Brooklyn to create a space where queer dialogues, LGBTI dialogues that look at black people specifically in an America at the height of racism are very much needed. I’m also here also to activate spaces, to revive a dialogue within the context of feminist arts and make that clear within museums and galleries. Recently I received a link from one of my friends who shared a clip in which Michelle Obama responded to how museums are white spaces. I think that came at a very good period in our lives to think of who gets to be shown, and how those projects are exhibited, and who curates, and the decision making prior to those shows. That helps me think of where I am right now in my life when I am clear with my political agenda and I cannot dare to be silenced.

So you were really concentrating on this being an important time politically, for you, for South Africa, even for America, with the various shifts institutionally that are happening.

Yes absolutely. And also to start a discussion on the kinds of images that are traditionally being shown. So in my exhibition, it was important to include representation in the wedding pieces, or Faces and Phases, or even the beaded pieces that declare the headlines of hate crimes that have occurred in South Africa. I am hoping to break down those notions around what is to be seen and what is not. For me to bring the marriage footage to America was very important. When people write about Africa and South Africa, it’s like we’re not progressive. People like to write about negativity when it comes to Africa you know? So I think to bring that joy, to bring that love, those relationships in these spaces, which I could say are queer spaces because of the way of thinking and decision-making—that was all very important. When people are given an opportunity to write about South Africa, nobody could think of us loving each other, building families together, creating homes that make sense to us. So that was the major thing. I wanted to bring love into the space; I wanted to bring intimacy into this space. I wanted a lot of black people who come to this museum to encounter a lot of us, that’s why you have a number of faces and phases. I wanted to give hope to that young person, that young black woman, and show her that her wish to take photographs is possible. I want to encourage young artists to think of photography as a possibility, as work—to think of art for consciousness, and in turn, museums as spaces where we can carve a new dialogue that favors us, which is why the feminist center really meant something.

You raise a great point. I’m also interested in how you see the exhibition alongside the other shows that are up in the museum. For example, there’s the Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks show, there was the Kehinde Wiley show. Did you get a chance to see them?

I saw Basquiat, because I love him. It’s a pity that he died so young. But thinking of Basquiat, that he died at twenty-something, I’m reminded of lesbians that are being butchered in their twenties, you know? Who are killed in their twenties. And also to say that his show raises a lot of questions, like when and why an artists’ is work deemed worthy; really ruminating on the politics of being shown in such a privilege space. So I’m just thinking about this young man who never had an opportunity to enjoy…

The fame, the acclaim, the respect.

Yes, the recognition that he deserved when he was still alive. So that makes so much sense. And also the portrait, his portrait outside, when you are about to [enter the exhibition]. It looks so much like Faces and Phases to me.

Yes, very true. Because of its composition.

Exactly. This guy could be any participant in Faces and Phases. He could be from South Africa. He looks so much like us. That sameness you know?

Speaking of those portraits, you talk about the importance of knowing every person who you photograph and the importance of the relationship. It’s not just your role in taking the photograph, but the work being a product of a community. So that made me really interested in how you brought along the photographers that you work with to document your performance at the opening evening of the exhibition.

Not all of them where photographers, but I do travel with participants because these are the individuals who are my pride. When I look at them, I am reminded of the opportunities that were given to me and I want to share these opportunities. I want to give people a chance to speak for themselves, to speak about their work. And also to understand what does it mean to be documented in political senses and see where the work goes once your photo is taken, how people can be appreciated. Obviously I can’t take the whole 200-plus individuals which whom I work, but bit by bit. If I could make a difference to one or two or three people that I work with, then I’ll know that for sure I’ve achieved something.

And even with your book, Faces and Phases 2006-2014, you do that, and it’s a beautiful gesture.

Yes the book, every [participant] has a copy of the book. Because who else are we producing this work for? For me photography is about relationships, which are of course made by the people, so I have to take care of the people that made [them] and of those that are closest to them. I’m trying by all means to reach out to as many as possible, but then this has become a job. That means that I have to hire people in order for them to further document and collect more life stories, to have one of the richest archives to come out of South Africa that focuses on black lesbians and trans people as a matter of fact. We can’t blame others for our failures anymore, and if we do not understand, we need to make sure that we ask questions. So we are producing an archive, we are not collecting for the archive, and I’m stressing the need for togetherness. We need to work together. It’s one thing to say ‘yes, we can’—it’s another to take action. So we own it, we own it. I want to teach people about the need to ask questions, and also to share the work that they’re doing. 

Your work is so deeply informed by your personal experiences and the experiences of your participants, yet it retains such a strong political slant as well. I’m interested in how you navigate that. How do you go from the personal to the political, the public to the private, in your work?

For me, what is important now is history—making and re-writing a history in which each and every body knows that they participated. When people say the work is beautiful, I say ‘okay thank you so much,’ but honestly this work should be beyond just beautiful. It’s powerful. It’s about claiming the spaces, taking back power, owning our voices and our selves and our bodies, without fear of being judged. Saying that we are here, without fear of being displaced. If you are fearful of something, you are continually carrying an inferiority complex—but if you say you are beautiful, it means that you could speak for yourself, you could speak you mind out; love yourself before expecting the next person to love you. This all means that I have to be self-conscious, minded with everything that moves, that’s before my sexuality, but my being in space.

Who inspires you? Who do you look to?

When it comes to Americans, Audre Lorde will always be my favorite because she informed a lot of us, gave us a new way of thinking. She was an out lesbian who was not scared to speak out her mind, who freed a lot of people’s souls to be open. She spoke of queer politics and pronounced the depths of lesbian intimacy in her work, risking her career of course—wow. I like those who break the sanitization a little bit and allow people a space to read and learn that this is beyond just art. If we talk about art and activism, if we talk about visual activism and sexualization of our bodies in space, it’s just a matter of fact. There are people who I’m doing this with, who are participating with me at a time at the height of hate crimes in South Africa. I pray often that one day they could see the contributions that they have made in history. Here you have the lesbian history archives, we are building that archive and we’re making sure that we’re penetrating all the galleries and museums, and do not limit our voices and our struggle on the street. But we’re taking on a different approach of strategies for that distribution, and vocalizing our issues. So we’re not playing games here. I’m not doing this alone.

Zanele Muholi: Isibonelo/Evidence is on view in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center of the Brooklyn Museum from 1 May – 1 November, 2015.

Further Reading

Sudan in Berlin

“Berlin isn’t Germany. Just like that website you write for—it’s really its own country.” – Mohamed Jeballa, partner in a popular Sudanese restaurant in the city.