Hailing from Umlazi township, South Africa, Zanele Muholi has been exploring queer African stories through photography and image making since the early 2000s. Muholi is an award-winning visual activist and whose work focuses on race, sexuality, and identity. While their most noteworthy work Faces and Phases, aimed to advocate for social injustices against Black trans, lesbian, and queer individuals after the apartheid regime, was exhibited from 2006 to 2014, their work continues today.
“I was born at the height of apartheid. A lot of images that I saw exhibited were mainly images of women weeping and I didn’t want to just hold a placard and chant. I wanted to carry a camera and document every moment of it,” Muholi says. “It was all about visibility and that’s exactly what I did, I captured raw images that tell stories.”
When asked about the development of their subjects when it comes to capturing pictures, Muholi said, “I choose to break these hierarchies. Calling people subjects is already a hierarchy. There is no subject because the people being photographed are the kings and queens who define what we do. They are the ones who are supposed to be on top of the pedestal because, without them, there are no photographs.”
Muholi speaks out about how Black LGBTQI+ people only trend as breaking news only when there’s a tragedy. People mistake queer lives as being heavily influenced by the media and the internet which is not true. “It’s about time that changes. Being queer is something that has always existed. It’s about time that we have a museum in Africa that is dedicated to queer and trans lives because we do not exist in shadows anymore. This is to say that we are more than capable of writing our own history and validating our own existence.”
With their newest series, Somnyama Ngonyama (which loosely translates to “Hail, the Dark Lioness”), the creative photographer turns the camera onto them making them both an image maker and a participant. With this series, their dark skin tone is heavily exaggerated. Muholi says that the sole purpose of exaggerating the portraits was to emphasize their pride in their blackness. They also say that the entire series also relates to the concept of MaID (“My Identity”) or, read differently, “maid,” the quotidian and demeaning name given to all subservient Black women in South Africa.
Muholi’s body of work possesses a powerful statement that has reached masses and will live on for the next generation. Not just for the LGBTQI+ minority group but for everyone who wants to change the political and cultural systems.