Who is Zanele Muholi?
Zanele Muholi was born on 19 July 1972 in the South African city of Durban. Muholi is a self-proclaimed visual activist rather than an artist. She focuses on increasing the visibility of black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersexual persons. Muholi researches and documents the stories of hate crimes against the LGBTQI community. She hopes to bring the realities of the assault “corrective rape1,” and HIV/AIDS to the attention of the masses.
In 2003, she completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. In 2004, she held a first-ever solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto. Her thesis mapped the visual documentary of black lesbian identity and politics in South Africa post-Apartheid.
Faces and Phases
In 2006, Muholi started the series Faces and Phases, which is ongoing. The series is meant to mock the “art-in-service-to-science” concept etched in the colonial images. Faces and Phases has more than 200 portraits of the lesbian community in South Africa.
Growing up, Muholi lived in a society that was intolerant of LGBTI, despite later in 2006 drafting a constitution that overtly prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexuality in South Africa. Even after the Civil Union Act2 was passed, legalizing same-sex marriages as well as civil partnerships, Muholi still believes “hostility toward ‘difference’ has barely slackened, and crimes against gays, and women, have increased.” According to statistics3, once in every two women in South Africa can expect to be raped at least once in her lifetime, and it is such attacks and discriminations that have been a motivation behind Muholi’s Faces and Phases.
In the 18th century, botany pictures show several plants plucked from their natural habitat, thus erasing any cultural or social context. This practice highlights the Western discovery of an object and does not acknowledge its long-lasting existence.
In this project, Muholi uses this history and likens it to depicting the LGBTI community in South Africa. While there was a drastic increase in the national representation of black queer individuals, the artist felt that it is still an erasure of crucial context. These individuals are depicted in the same way as the botanical imageries. There is an upsurge in visibility in Western consumption, but no focus is accorded to the misery and systematic subjugation these individuals face in post-apartheid in South Africa.
Muholi challenges this narrative with Faces and Phases by delivering names, dates, locations, and representing the characters within a public domain. Without captions, the images could fall under the regularized gaze of Western culture.
Collectively, the portraits are at once a visual statement and an archive, marking, mapping and preserving an often invisible community for posterity.
The photographer herself has become a victim of a targeted attack. Her house, which she lives with her partner, was broken into by goons, and more than twenty hard drives stolen, effectively deleting the last five years or so of worth that she has been tirelessly building.
I am still traumatized by the attack. It is hard to fall asleep in this place, which is now a crime scene, as I dealt with many crime scenes before.
This work needs to be shown, people need to be educated, people need to feel that there are possibilities. I always think to myself, if you don’t see your community, you have to create it. I can’t be dependent on other people to do it for use. We cannot be denied existence. This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.
From local to global
The first portrait in Faces and Phases was of Busi Sigara, which was captured at Constitution Hill6 in Johannesburg. This is also a location where many protestors who fought against apartheid were locked up.
Since that first portrait, Muholi has captured more than 500 other characters in different areas of South Africa, in the neighboring African countries, and, in some instances, beyond the continent in countries such as Sweden, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Her activism has crossed the borders and become a global campaign. Muholi was invited to her former school in Toronto, Canada, to join them on their international tours.
Starting with the Chicago Gay Games held in 2006, spanning across other sports, pride parades, numerous exhibitions, photography workshops, performances, residencies, film festivals, award ceremonies, as well as other cultural events in various parts Mexico, Canada, United States, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Lesotho, France, Benin, Uganda, and Botswana.
This year (2019), Faces and Phases holds a reflective stance to acknowledge some of the milestones achieved by the series since its inception while honoring the long road still lies ahead before total freedom may be realized, including complete elimination of hate crimes against members of the LGBTQIA communities.
Video: Zanele Muholi speaks about her work
Susan Kart of Grove Art Online believes that Faces and Phases documents victims of sexual assault and hate crimes; the wedding images share moments of victory, acceptance, and joy for LGBTI families.
Faces and Phases is rooted in advocacy and social justice, and Muholi sees herself as not just an artist but an activist as well. Through this series, she presents positive portraits of individuals usually confronted by society’s assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices based on race, sexuality, and identity.
The subjects in Faces and Phases look straight at the camera lens and the viewer, conveying the message of defiance, openness, being both shy and proud.
Faces and Phases also encourages the inclusion of members from LGBTQIA communities in academic, economic, social, and other spheres of society. Speaking about the strides so far, Muholi said:
The journey has been long and hard.
This is not art; this is life. Each and every photograph is someone’s biography.