How Visual Activist Zanele Muholi Makes Her Subjects Feel Worthy

Zanele Muholi prefers to be called a visual activist rather than an artist. The South African’s black-and-white portrait photography is, simply put, arresting. Her power, both behind and in front of the lens, is palpable.

Muholi grew up in South Africa during apartheid, constantly exposed to images of violence through the media. Creating her own kinds of images with a camera ultimately saved her life, she has said, explaining that photography became the only thing that made sense to her. In 2006, she began the ongoing series “Faces and Phases,” capturing the LGBTQI community of South Africa in an effort to combat the stigma around queer identity in society. A few years later, she founded the nonprofit organization Inkanyiso, which provides literacy training and advocacy for the LGBTQI community. In 2014, Muholi focused her eye on the transgender community, for the series “Brave Beauties.” In both bodies of work, her aim is to make her subjects feel that they are worthy, that they count, and that nobody has a right to undermine them.

Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi
MaID III
Philadelphia
2018
Gelatin silver print
© Zanele Muholi
Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg.

For “Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness),” Muholi concentrates on self-portraiture, using her body and face as a canvas to explore caricatures, histories—both real and imagined—and biographical experiences. Often, she takes these images while traveling around the world for exhibitions or talks, using props and materials she can find in her hotel room.

Muholi is a vital voice in contemporary visual art today. Her photos have been in a multitude of international exhibitions and are now part of some of the most important museum collections. Next year, a solo show of Muholi’s work is planned to take place at the Tate Modern in London.

Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi
Yaya Mavundla III
Parktown, Johannesburg
2017
Gelatin silver print
© Zanele Muholi
Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg.

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