Zanele Muholi – Confronting stereotypes in South Africa

Part of photo series
Part of photo series "Faces and Phases". Photo:

Born in 1972 in South Africa, photographer and filmmaker Zanele Muholi has spent her entire life as an advocate for the LGBTQI+ community in her home country.

Inspired at an early age by injustice, Muholi is a visual artist of some acclaim. Her art traverses the boundaries between photography and film making; delving deep into her subjects and cross-referencing with the bigotry and violence suffered by inequality in post-apartheid South Africa.

Muholi has an exhibition on hold at the Tate Modern in London, interrupted by the pandemic. As soon as the restrictions are lifted Muholi’s work will be available for all to experience. Driven on by an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in 2016, a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2016, and an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2018, Muholi challenges bias in a hard-hitting way.

Muholi’s fight for the LGBTQI commutity

Addressing head-on subjects such as “corrective rape” of lesbians, and hate crimes against the LGBTQI communities against a background of broken promises made in the South African 1996 constitution—this constitution was supposed to ensure equality in what is seen to the outside world as a liberated country. Muholi leaves us in little doubt where her loyalties lie.

Starting her journey by completing an advanced photography course at the Market Photo Workshop run by David Goldblatt in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2003, Muholi benefits from Goldblatt’s mission to ensure visual literacy is available to all. Studying carries her through to her Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto In 2009, never stopping to draw breath. 

Only Half The Picture © Zanele Muholi. Photo: Tate

In 2003 – 2006 an exhibition called Only Half The Picture is an early example of the passion felt for her subject and subjects. You see a woman binding her breast. Close-ups of scars both physical and mental on the bodies and faces of the sitters acknowledging the pain we can see.

Faces and Phases in 2006 are black and white portraits of lesbians, women and transgender people confronting the viewer with an openness not usually seen in these closed communities. What comes across through all the photographs are the stoney-faced expressions that they all have in common; portraying many emotions, and none of them positive. Abuse is seen in the eyes and on the face of the subjects as an everyday occurrence.

South Africa is not an easy place to live of you’re a transgender or gay man and the series of photos called Beulahs 2006 shows the difficulties faced. The use of this name for the exhibition is interesting in itself—Beulah means married, a feminine given-name originated from a Hebrew word and used in the bible. Given the unwelcome interpretation of the bible by some against the gay community, Muholi is referencing this fact and is very quick to point out it is not an endorsement.

Self-expression, representation and self-portrait are a major part of her work and we see a series called Brave Beauties. Here we see a celebration of non-binary and transgender women who have put themselves forward for scrutiny through beauty pageants and similar situations, incorporating images of tender moments that may otherwise be taboo, with the intention of challenging stereotypes.

Every photograph and video made has an agenda and unfailing devotion to the cause, to the liberation of others. Each photo challenges bias whether conscious or unconscious. However, it is the latest ongoing series called Somnyama Ngonyama which translates into “Hail the Dark Lioness”. That is a powerful and reflective self-portrait exploring themes including racism, eurocentrism and sexual politics which shows the true talent of the artist.

Muholi, voice of the voiceless

Zanele Muholi. Photo: Artnet

When Muholi is not taking photos and making art she is a powerful activist; co-founding the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, and in 2009 founded Inkanyiso——a forum for queer and visual media. Speaking at WorldPride in Madrid in 2017, Muholi reinforces her mission by stating her intention “To rewrite a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of their resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond”. That is one hell of a mission and if anyone can, Muholi can!

Available to view at the Tate Modern as soon as restrictions are lifted, this is the first time an entire portfolio of 260 photographs has been presented in the UK, as part of an ongoing exhibition called WEPRESENT sponsored by aligning with #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Muholi is one of five artists who really have something to say and will make others sit up and listen, mark my words.


  1. Thank you, that’s so nice of you – but I have to say my eyes have been opened by writing these articles.

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