As a photographer whose work expresses strength and passion, Zanele Muholi, 40, has spent over 10 years creating an archive of black lesbian and transgender people’s experiences in SA. “I came from a home where cameras were a luxury,” she says. “But I’ve made it my life’s work to ensure black lesbians are part of SA’s national history.”
Raised by her domestic-worker mother in KwaZulu Natal’s Umlazi, Zanele left for Joburg in 1992 and began working as a reporter for the now defunct ‘Behind the Mask’, an online lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex magazine. “In 2002 I helped to co-found the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, where I documented hate crimes experienced by black lesbians in our communities,” she says. “And in 2001, after an advanced photography workshop, I began photographing our lives.”
Zanele’s first solo exhibition, “Visual Sexuality”, in 2004, was the start of her no-holds-barred portraits of black lesbians expressing their sexual identity. There are photographs of naked women embracing their lovers, women in men’s clothing, and shots that reflect the daily reality of lesbians – like the photo of a woman strapping down her breasts.
After more than 10 solo and 35 group exhibits around the world, Zanele has won several awards, including the prestigious Index on Censorship Award. “My mission is to ensure that there are positive images of black lesbians in mainstream media,” she says.
She is also one of 17 artists chosen to represent SA at the Venice Biennale, which runs until November. “I’m moving black lesbians into public spaces. We deserve a place at mainstream events in which we can speak about our lives and showcase our talents,”she says. “And my visual activism won’t end until we’re treated with the respect owed to every human being.”
Zanele Muholi will be speaking on Thursday 27 February at the Design Indaba in Cape Town. Follow #DesignIndaba on Twitter for live updates!