Zanele Muholi’s documentation of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people in South Africa is a visual archive for those who are marginalised. Despite equality laws, various hate crimes – including “corrective” rape (committed by men behind the guise of attempting to “cure” lesbians of their sexual orientation) mar the lives of South African LGBTI individuals. Zanele’s life’s work Faces and Phases (2006—) consists of black and white images of Black lesbians. Most hold the viewer’s gaze in a defiant insistence: “I exist. I cannot be erased.” Zanele considers those they photograph as participants, rather than subjects. The participants often join Zanele at exhibitions to tell their story, spreading knowledge of Black LGBTI experiences in South Africa.
The youngest of eight children, Zanele Muholi was born on the 19th of July 1972 in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal. In 2003, Zanele embarked on an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newton. In 2009, they received their Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, Toronto. Despite winning numerous awards, including the 2017 Mbokodo Award (Visual Art) for South African Women in the Arts, Zanele doesn’t seek external validation. Their focus is on their community, and ensuring it is never erased. While Zanele’s self-portraiture series Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) explores their own life – the image Julie I, Parktown, Johannesburg (2016) portrays Zanele on inflated plastic blags, representing the fibroids removed from their uterus – the series also explores the lives of their community. For example, Thulani II, Parktown, (2015) acknowledges the miners killed by police in the 2012 Marikana massacre.
Zanele considers themselves a visual activist. This activism extends beyond photography; in 2002, they co-founded the Forum of Empowerment of Women, a feminist advocacy organisation for Black lesbians. In 2009, they founded Inkanyiso, a forum for queer visual activist media. Zanele also educates; they created Photo XP, a mobile school of photography.