Ntobz Mkhwanazi, BB section Umlazi, Durban, (2012) an image to be featured in Muholi’s 2012 Documenta exhibition. (Photo courtesy Zanele Muholi/ Stevenson gallery)

I got to know Zanele Muholi at the 8th Rencontres de Bamako Biennale in 2009. She had been invited to exhibit her work as part of the main exhibition Borders featuring 38 other African photographers, and ended up winning the Fondation Blachère Award. A well-deserved accolade acknowledging the courage it takes to make work that confronts what it means to be a black queer woman in a country like South Africa, where a certain sector of cultural and social beliefs authorize the “corrective rape” of gay women.

In fact, human-rights organizations estimate that 10 “corrective rapes” happen every week in the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town alone. It doesn’t stop there. A Time magazine article affirms that:

“31 lesbians have been murdered in South Africa since 1998 … and the only case to result in a conviction was that of Eudy Simelane, the star player for Banyana Banyana, South Africa’s national women’s soccer team, who was gang-raped and murdered outside Johannesburg in 2008.”

In response to these atrocities Zanele Muholi has, since 2007, committed to photographing these women’s portraits as part of her ongoing series Faces and Phases and Beulahs (a gay South African slang word for “Beauties”) affording a positive identity to black lesbians. She considers herself a visual activist.

Apinda Mpako and Ayanda Magudulela, Parktown, Johannesburg 2007 (Photo courtesy the artist)

To achieve this, her portraits are straight-shot black and white images that make direct reference to the tradition of portraiture. The result is that on the one hand these women are documented to reveal something of their true self — reminiscent of Catherine Opie‘s Girlfriend series but minus the constructed narrative. Instead, Muholi’s role is to simply and effectively afford her subjects a platform to be “seen” and furthermore be recognized in a climate that has, to date, marginalized this community and omitted documenting its existence. Furthermore, through the austerity of the black and white photograph, Muholi depicts her subjects as sublime overturning negative stereotypes of queer identity and embracing the identity of the dyke by making these subjects her muses. In doing so, she celebrates her subjects and so infuses them with an innate strength. They become moving in not only in their plight but also in their convictions. The simple act of being photographed is brave on the part the artist and also on the part of her subjects, and their willingness to be revealed is a testament to their steadfastness.

Since 2010, the artist has volunteering for Freegender, a black lesbian organization based in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. In addition to this, Muholi has also branched out in to documentary, Difficult Love, about her process of photographing her subjects. It is co-directed by Peter Goldsmid.

Zanele Muholo being interviewed for the Casa Africa TV channel. (Photo courtesy Casa Africa)

The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at South Africa’s 2011 Durban Gay & Lesbian Film Festival as well as the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the 2011 Picture film festival in Amsterdam. It was also screened at the Perlen Queer Film Festival in Hannover, Germany and at the Side by Side film festival in St Petersburg, Russia in October last year.

When I met Muholi she seemed kind but also tough and motivated with the kind of personality that naturally commands respect.

She remains true to her convictions and continues to photograph and exhibit her portraits throughout Africa, as well as in Vienna, Amsterdam, the UK, Italy, the USA and Cuba. In addition to photographing black queer women she continues to explore the subjects surrounding transgendered people and the misperceptions of gender the identity invokes. However, her Faces and Phases series continues to international gain momentum and Muholi is in process of developing a new series of over 25 portraits to be exhibited as part of Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany this year. It is clear Zanele Muholi is not to be ignored!

Portraits of ‘TK’ Thembi Khumalo and Amanda Mahlaba (2012) to be featured at Documenta 13 this year. (Photo courtesy the artist)

Zanele Muholi’s exhibition Face of Our Time opened at the University of Michigan Museum of Art on 12 November, 2011 and closes  5 February, 2012. Muholi is represented by Stevenson Gallery, South Africa.

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...