Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi - portfolio

RE-EDITION presents a portfolio by the extraordinary South African visual activist and artist Zanele Muholi, whose mid-career retrospective is scheduled to begin at the Tate Modern this summer - running until 18th October 2020. We give an exclusive preview here - to see the full story, see our latest issue 13.

Zanele Muholi in conversation with Renée Mussai My practice as a visual activist looks at black resistance—existence as well as insistence. Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on black LGBTQIA and gender-nonconforming individuals making sure we exist in the visual archive. (In Faces and Phases, I focused exclusively on LBTQ individuals, for instance, bearing in mind that gender politics are complex, and fluid; the acronyms are always shifting and changing.) The key question that I take to bed with me is: what is my responsibility as a living being—as a South African citizen reading continually about racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes in the mainstream media? This is what keeps me awake at night. Thus Somnyama Ngonyama is not only about beautiful photographs, as such, but also about bringing forth political statements. The series touches on beauty and relates to historical incidents, giving affirmation to those who doubt whenever they speak to themselves, whenever they look in the mirror, to say, “You are worthy. You count. Nobody has the right to undermine you because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.”

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness

Zanele Muholi Hail the Dark Lioness
Dudu, Parktown, 2016

Almost Half the Full Picture

By Gabi Ngcobo

In the early 2000’s, at the beginning of my artistic and curatorial practice, it became very clear that South Africa had entered a period where post-apartheid black subjectivities became a point of interest for many art professionals from the west. In 2004, when South Africa celebrated the first decade of democracy, many exhibitions took place within the country and an even larger number were mounted in Europe and the USA. These exhibitions presented a commemorative visual report on how personal and historical narratives that were previously suppressed were beginning to find their voice beyond what was then termed “Protest Art” or “Resistance Art”. During this period we started witnessing a growing academic interest in how (black) same-sex expressions were continuing to fight for their place in the new construction of (post-apartheid) nation. The new research interest by sociologists from Gender and Sexuality Studies university departments produced the first pool of studies interested in how South Africa’s new constitution, one of the most progressive in the world, had an effect on same-sex relationships and queer identities preceding the passing of the Civil Union Act in November 2006. It was around this time that Zanele Muholi enrolled and in 2004 completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, exhibiting as part of her course completion in a group exhibition titled Is Everybody Comfortable? Indeed not everybody was comfortable about the free expressions of complex female identities that were portrayed by the 13 women* featured in the exhibition (which included, among others Keorapetse Mosimane, Lolo Veleko and Ingrid Masondo). There was no doubt that the South African image-making landscape, which was previously male dominated, was shifting rapidly. Muholi’s images could not be ignored. They were collectively exciting and disturbing. Exciting because until that time we were never confronted with realities lived by many members of the LGBTI+ community who participated in Muholi’s documentary photo-essays; especially black lesbian women living in South Africa’s often perilous townships. The images were personal and intimate. They also poetically depicted disturbing encounters with hate and violence experienced by the many lesbian identifying participants.

Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo - 2015
MaID IV, New York, 2018

Sheraton Hotel, Brooklyn, 2019

For example, Case number (2004) is a black and white image of a piece of paper generated by the Meadowlands: Soweto South African Police Service, documenting a reported case of rape and assault. It marks the scourge of corrective rapes targeted at the LGBTQ+ community that Muholi began giving image to around that period. In other images the hate crime survivor is shown waist down dressed in strippy hospital clothing. They are clasping their hands tensely and lying on a hospital bed whilst in another What don’t you see when you look at me the participant shows scars from one of their left arm. In most images taken during this time, we hardly see the faces of the participants. It makes perfect sense that this body of work is archived in Muholi’s first book titled Only Half the Picture.

Through Muholi’s work of over the past 16 years we have been able to comprehend the myriad and complex queer gender expressions as well as how the LGBTI+ community has, through forms of representation heralded, encouraged and supported by Muholi, found a space where the images are not as “enraging” as they were when they first appeared. In 2005 Muholi produced their first documentary film entiled Enraged by the Picture. Inspired by written comments in the visitors’ book for the exhibition coinciding with the Gender and Visuality Conference held at the University of Western Cape in 2004 the film addresses the documented discomfort of visitors when confronted with images taken by Muholi. In the film, Muholi captures black lesbian women living their normal day-to-day lives and their strategies of self-preservation in a hostile environment. It is a humanizing film that, according to Muholi, “adds to a history of struggle that has not yet been written or recorded.” In the fictionalized photo series titled Massa and Minah Muholi grappled with another unknowable and undocumented, the intimate relationships between white madams and black maids.

For 42 years Muholi’s mother, Bester Muholi, worked as a domestic labourer for a white family. Through the gaps in her mother’s story and the stories of all black women who worked as domestic maids Muholi embarks on a speculative journey of giving image to an impossible narrative. In these images Muholi is seen dressed in a maid’s uniform acting out different scenarios between herself and a white woman (the madam). In one image they are on their knees polishing the floor and peering under the skirt of a white woman as she walks past. In another image Muholi’s hands are closing the madam’s eyes in a game with two people who seem intimately familiar with each other. The images from this series strain against the limits of an archive that often privileges the famously scandalous sexual exploitation of black maids by white men in a country where sexual intercourse and marriage between white people and people who are not white was illegal. With Massa and Minah Muholi enacts what could have been or what could never be substantiated, a method described by writer and academic Saidiya Hartman as “critical fabulation” – an attempt at “jeopardizing the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and toimagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done.” (Hartman:

Phila I, Parktown, 2016
Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016

In perhaps their most significant undertaking in documenting and celebrating black lesbian and transgender people in South Africa and beyond Muholi embarked on a long-term portraiture project titled Faces and Phases (2006- 2014). In an interview about the project with photographic historian Deborah Willis Muholi stated, “We should be counted and certainly counted on to write our own history and validate our existence. We should not feel that somebody owes us these liberties.” Aware that we do not exist without representation Muholi has taken it upon themselves to ensure that the lives of black lesbians and transgender individuals have a face, a name and a story. They have created an archive that speaks of the joy, pain and triumphant moments experienced by the LGBTIQ+ community in a world that is not always pleasant to difference. In their most recent and current black and white photo series Somnyama Ngonyama (hail the dark lioness) Muholi turns the camera onto themselves. It is a series that achieves different things all at once.

The images are serious yet playful. Muholi applies a Dadaistic and surrealistic approach to materials used to create ‘costumes’ for the portraits as well as in their editing. The portraits are majestic, but what is not immediately obvious is the simplicity of the collage of materials such as masking tape, plumbic pipes, money notes, bicycle tires, artifacts or fabrics used to create the characters’ outfits. These characters are given (or titled) in isiZulu, Muholi’s mother tongue. The titles celebrate women’s unseen or uncelebrated hard labour as well as bring forth the experiences of border crossing by people of colour, black female identifying people in particular. They are created in different places where Muholi travels and are meant to act as journal entries documenting each place, event, experience, feeling or memory. In one image, forming part of a series of images taken in Myotte in memory of their mother, Muholi’s hair is replaced by a number of metal pot scrubbers – a testament to the work she did for more than four decades working as a domestic maid for a white family. In these images the blackness of the characters is editorially amplified in a way that feels almost unreal. The darkness is, to quote from Teju Cole’s “A True Picture of Black Skin” “neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.” (

Miss D’vine I, 2007
Namhla at Cassilhaus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina - 2016

There are many glories in Somnyama Ngonyama – all of them demand an unhurried and patient seeing. This body of work is testament to the magic that exists in the shadows, a magic that demands to be seen in the light of its monumental glory. Muholi reminds us over and over again that visibility has hyper visibility as it’s uncomfortable paradox because visibility renders dark what needs to be brought into light. We are indebted to Muholi, Zanele for their continued and unparalleled unpacking of what it means to recognize and honour the phases we go through as humans and their journey in ensuring that this very basic human unfolding corresponds to an image, a narrative.


Read Next
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions