Zanele Muholi’s Visual Activism

"Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg," 2016 © Zanele Muholi

“Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg,” 2016 © Zanele Muholi

Photographer Zanele Muholi is responsible for crafting some of the most electric self-portraiture, not just in recent memory, but in the entirety of the history of image making. A self-described visual or cultural activist, Muholi has done a great deal to make strides forward for the LGBTQIA+ community in both the art world and the world at large. With seemingly endless layers of meaning to their work, they have managed to both connect threads of history and culture that aren’t always communicated together so effectively, while also boldly confronting those elements.  

"Bhekezakhe, Parktown, Johannesburg," 2016 © Zanele Muholi

“Bhekezakhe, Parktown, Johannesburg,” 2016 © Zanele Muholi

Each image is riveting on an aesthetic level while immediately communicating that a deep thoughtfulness and active resistance to the status quo is at work. Muholi’s photographs are a confrontation and an upheaval of stereotypical images of Africans; racist imagery of Black people in general; imagery that pigeonholes their subjects based on gender roles and sexuality; and a reclamation of one’s own image as a human on Earth—and more. Muholi has exploded portraiture with these powerful visual acts of self-determination.

"Zithulele, Worcester, South Africa," 2016 © Zanele Muholi

“Zithulele, Worcester, South Africa,” 2016 © Zanele Muholi

Muholi, in an essay last year for Financial Times Magazine, explains it best:

“With Somnyama Ngonyama – ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ – I turned the camera on myself, as a response to the ongoing racism, the perpetual violence on black bodies in the mainstream media and the politics of exclusion. It’s also aimed at dealing with the personal. As photographers, we get carried away; we tend to focus on other people and forget about ourselves. I made the choice to expose myself because I felt that nobody could do it for me. I did it to remember me and to be remembered. I wanted to use my face so that likenesses will always remember just how important our black faces are when confronted by them. For this black face to be recognised as belonging to a sensible, thinking being in their own right. Remember that when you violate a person, it all starts with the face.”

"Kodwa I, Amsterdam," 2017 © Zanele Muholi

“Kodwa I, Amsterdam,” 2017 © Zanele Muholi

"Bester I, Mayotte," 2015 © Zanele Muholi

“Bester I, Mayotte,” 2015 © Zanele Muholi

In addition to their cultural activism Muholi is also co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, and founder of Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual media.

Muholi’s first monograph, Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, an object of exquisite beauty, was published last year by Aperture. The scale of the book is such that the portraits feel about life-size, meaning I, at least, experience Muholi’s gaze with sharp intensity—I have a hard time looking away. With more than ninety self-portraits in the book, the effect of turning page after page to be challenged and thrilled with each turn of the page is a deep experience. Aperture is already sold out for direct purchase, though you can still buy the book online through the usual suspects (after checking your local bookstore, naturally). Hurry up, though!

"Faniswa, Seapoint, Cape Town," 2016 © Zanele Muholi

“Faniswa, Seapoint, Cape Town,” 2016 © Zanele Muholi

"Phindile I, Paris," 2014 © Zanele Muholi

“Phindile I, Paris,” 2014 © Zanele Muholi

All photographs are © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg, and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.

From Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, published by Aperture in 2018. Available for purchase here or on backorder at photo-eye

"Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness" (Aperture, 2018)

“Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” (Aperture, 2018)

Muholi’s work will be on view with Yancey Richardson Gallery at the Armory Show in New York City, March 7-10, 2019. Their work is also included in The Extended Moment exhibition, at the Morgan Library in New York City, on view through May 26, 2019.