Her artwork is integrated with her work within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities, inviting its members to collaborate on her projects. As part of this work she volunteers for Freegender based in Khayelitscha, Cape Town. A major part of this is a blog that invites members of the community, specifically black lesbian women, to write about their experiences and share their stories. This space aims to give to LGBT members a platform for expression and to have their voices heard in the same way her artworks aim to give them visibility.
Born in Umlazi, which is south-west of Durban, South Africa, Muholi completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in 2004, and she has since exhibited extensively both locally and internationally.
I talked with Zanele to get a better understanding of how she views her practice in context to South Africa and the globe, as well as how she deals with exhibiting images of her participants openly in a community where they are potentially susceptible to violent backlash.
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Claire Breukel: How do you find your participants?
Zanele Muholi: Most of the people who I photograph are already out [about being gay] and people I know. TK was my student in 2006 and she is also from my hometown and she introduced me to Ntobz. I got to know Amanda through a friend I met at an LGBT conference. They are no strangers to me and we are an extended family. And in the same way, as a group, we make sure we stay safe.
CB: What impact does the process of photographing the women in your series Faces and Phases and Beulahs have on them, and the lesbian community?
ZM: So far black lesbian women have had their existence violently and blaringly erased. They [the women photographed] are not only involved as participants, but they are contributors towards a history as South African citizens. Beyond us being photographed as lesbians, we need to produce our history. This goes beyond not just conforming to gender ideals. Where is the identity of gay people or trans people? Where is that history?
Historically, even looking at celebrities, this identity is hidden from the people. There are so many women dying in silence. Women might be forced in to marriages — when they see these images they can identify with someone. So it is important for us to speak up for a larger community. Expression has for years been suppressed by gatekeepers, so we collaborate to document our history.
CB: I know you have done a lot of volunteer work in the communities where lesbian women have been raped and murdered. Have you ever considering showing your artwork in this environments?
ZM: My aim is to give people spaces to see themselves. The South African landscape is a space divided by history. Do you have museums and galleries in the townships? South Africa has gained independence — but we do not have even five galleries in the townships.
That being said, it is my duty to bring the people who have been photographed to come and see themselves and have an understanding of the images in a space [galleries] where black people were not allowed before.
CB: Your new publication Fragments Of A New History (PDF) has recently been published in conjunction with your exhibition in Spain, and you have had a number of other solo shows abroad. Is it your aim to shed light on queer issues internationally?
ZM: To date the image of black lesbians is just a negative image. And hate crime is ordained at disorganizing us as a group. I want there to be a positive image of us that we can capture as evidence of what is taking place currently. I have the option in my work to project blood or to project people as they are. In South Africa, no matter how poor people are they rise above and project themselves positively. And there are so many people who would like to see what black lesbians look like.
With the publication and exhibition there was no exchange of money, which is amazing, and I really appreciate what they did. Books and publications live beyond us and they become reference documents that can be used for education — students reference this kind of work, especially in Women’s Studies.
CB: Lets talk about your awards. In 2009, you won the Casa Africa award for best female photographer at Les Rencontres de Bamako biennial of African photography, the Fanny Ann Eddy accolade awarded by the International Resource Network in Africa (IRN-Africa) and an LGBTI Art & Culture Award. Have these awards impacted your career and your work?
ZM: The awards are not recognizing Zanele only, they are recognizing the participants in the work. I don’t like to call people subjects I call them participants and contributors to activism projects. We are in it together and they trust me with their all. These are the people who are being awarded.
CB: What made you decide to make your documentary Difficult Love? And how did your participants feel about being a part of a film?
ZM: The documentary was created in 2010 and shown mostly to people who are familiar with what I do. I work a lot with scholars and this information about my process helps them. I call myself a visual activist as I use visuals to describe what I am unable to script. I would like the world out there to get a different history of South Africa — a queer history, and the film helped do this.
It is hard to only work in spaces that look at art specifically. As an individual it is also hard to get funding to deal with LGBT issues — so I have to partner with organizations, which sometimes makes the process more difficult. But I took it upon myself to write this history as I live it and as I feel it. This is what the film is about.
CB: You have also done work photographing the transgender community- can you tell us a bit about this?
ZM: For the longest time we have spoken about the issues of the LGBT community, which just spoke about gays, but there were transgender people in between. They were rarely given a space within the “LG” community.
I have friends who are transitioning and they are coming out as friends, partners and as a neighbors, and they need support. Lesbians need to also better understand the term transgender and learn from such an expression and not to be critical towards our own. It’s not about sexual orientation its about gender expression. If someone says “I am a man, Zanele” I have to respect that and give that person a space. I’m still learning …
CB: Where do you feel you work is going next?
ZM: I do different things based on my experiences. I did a domestic worker series that talks about my mothers’ story, I did a series on interracial relationships which is about my personal experience. I have different iterations, but I will always do LGBT issues, as I will always be part of that community. It’s about me being expressive as long as I live that life, so I will never stop. I wish there were many other people doing these projects and embedding these images in history. I want these images to be part of history and produce a visual history of LGBT people.
… And then there is Documenta 13, which is a dream come true. (laughs)
As a lesbian, especially coming from Africa … have we ever had a black lesbian showing at Documenta? Let it be us! We are coming with over 50 faces. In fact, Lesbians and Trans-men at Documenta that is the headline! Because without these people there is no Zanele Muholi.
CB: Do you fear reprisal?
ZM: You live with fear obviously. I am exposed and there is nowhere to run to. In my head space I would rather be killed for what I am than to be killed in silence. There are so many people who are putting their life on the line for the benefit of many. Why do we have to hide our identity and avoid expressing our love for other people who are the same gender? If anything happens to me I will know that I have done something positive.