Zanele Muholi documents the lives and stories of Black LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Agender, Asexual) communities in South Africa and beyond. This exhibition charts their work as a visual activist from the early 2000s to the present day, with photographs addressing sexual politics, racial violence, self-empowerment and communal acts of resistance.
During the 1990s, South Africa underwent major social and political changes, with democracy established only after the abolition of apartheid in 1994. This was a political and social system of racial segregation enforced by white minority rule, in which anyone who was not classified as white was actively oppressed by the regime. While the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, the LGBTQIA+ community remains a target for prejudice, hate crimes and violence, which Muholi aims to expose.
Muholi also makes self-portraits that address race, history and representation. They use the camera as a tool to acknowledge and repair injustices. Contributing to a growing visual archive celebrating Black queer and trans selfhood, their work is a testimony to those who risk their lives to live authentically. Interested in collaborative storytelling, Muholi sees the people in their on-going series as “participants”, composing space for collective action as resistance. In doing so, they challenge ideals of beauty and being to honour the power of Blackness in the lives of gender nonconforming individuals. Muholi’s preferred gender pronouns are they/them/theirs.
This room presents works from Muholi’s series Being (2006–on-going). The portraits depict moments of intimacy between queer couples, as well as their daily life and routines. They express not only the importance of sexual freedom, but also forms of care and respect in relationships.
Each couple is shown in the private spaces they share. Muholi also gestures toward wider circles of kinship and chosen family, and has described how “lovers and friends consented to participate in the project, willing to bare and express their love for each other.” Being acknowledges the need for communal expressions of love and protection in the recovery from oppression. This is necessary to dismantle the patriarchal gaze, which upholds heterosexuality as the norm or default sexual orientation.
Muholi says: “Since slavery and colonialism, images of us African women have been used to reproduce heterosexuality and white patriarchy, and these systems of power have organised our everyday lives so that it is difficult to visualise ourselves as we actually are in our respective communities. Moreover, the images we see rely on binaries that were long prescribed for us (heterosexual/homosexual, male/female, African/unAfrican). From birth onwards, we are taught to internalise their existences, sometimes forgetting that if bodies are connected, connecting, the sensuousness goes beyond simplistic understandings of gender and sexuality.”
Only Half the Picture
This room includes work from Muholi’s first series Only Half the Picture (2002–2006). It depicts survivors of hate crimes living across South Africa and its townships. The photographs are accompanied by documentation of trials and anti-hate crime campaigns.
Under apartheid, townships were established as residential areas for thosemwho had been evicted from places designated as “white only”. Muholi uses image-making as a way of bearing witness to such collective pain.
The people Muholi photographs – their participants – are presented with compassion, dignity and courage in the face of ongoing discrimination, such as racialisation and gender-based violence. The series includes images of pain, love and defiance in the Black LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa, expanding the narrative beyond victimhood and case numbers.
Somnyama Ngonyama (2012–on-going) is a series in which Muholi turns the camera on themself to explore the politics of race, self-expression and the gaze. The portraits are taken in different locations around the world and are printed in various sizes. Made using everyday materials and objects from Muholi’s surroundings, the series expresses their journeys as a Black queer person, and also includes political events and personal memories, such as experiences of racial profiling.
Muholi self-fashions their appearance using a range of materials that evoke different histories. They question systemic violence and harmful representations of Black people, thereby enabling multiple states of transformation. Several pieces are named after Muholi’s mother, Bester, who worked for a white family for over 42 years. They challenge representations of servitude to bring sovereignty and healing into effect. Muholi draws out these histories to educate people and to facilitate the processing of these traumas, both personally and collectively.
Many titles in the series are in isiZulu, Muholi’s first language. This is part of their activism, taking ownership of and pride in their mother tongue and identity. Under colonialism and apartheid, Black people were often given English names by their employers or teachers who refused to remember their real names. Muholi encourages a Western audience to actively learn these names.
Muholi considers how the gaze is constructed in their photographs. In some images they look away. In others they stare directly into the camera, asking what it means for “a Black person to look back.” When exhibited together, the viewer is surrounded by a network of gazes. Muholi increases the contrast of the images, which has the effect of darkening their skin tone. “I’m reclaiming my Blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other.”
Queering Public Space
Photographing Black LGBTQIA+ participants in public spaces is an important part of Muholi’s visual activism. Muholi states, “We’re ‘queering’ the space in order for us to access the space. We transition within the space in order to make sure that the Black trans bodies are part of this as well. We owe it to ourselves.”
Several of the locations are important to the history of South Africa. These include historic urban spaces, working-class neighbourhoods and beachfronts such as Durban Beach, close to Muholi’s birthplace of Umlazi. Beaches were segregated during apartheid, and now symbolise how racial segregation affected every aspect of life, including the erasure of queer sexualities. Some images are taken at Constitutional Hill, the seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, a key place in the country’s progression towards democracy.
Muholi uses photography to compose zones of belonging, often choosing to photograph participants in vibrant colour, bringing the work closer to reality and rooting it in the present day. It is within zones such as these that they created the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a non-profit organisation focusing on Black lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, which was co-founded by Muholi in 2002. Establishing relationships with their participants and doing community work, they encourage people to be defiant, shedding anxiety as they dress up in full splendour and strike poses.
Brave Beauties (2014–on-going) is a series of portraits of trans women, gender nonconforming and non-binary people that celebrates the plenitude of beauty, including beauty pageant contestants and drag queens. Queer beauty pageants offer a space of resistance within the Black LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa, expressing beauty outside of heteronormative and white supremacist cultures.
Muholi has commented that these participants “enter beauty pageants to change mindsets in the communities they live in, the same communities where they are most likely to be harassed, or worse.” This series is also inspired by fashion magazine covers and suggests ways of honouring queer icons. Muholi has questioned whether “South Africa as a democratic country would have an image of a trans woman on the cover of a magazine.” These images aim to challenge queerphobic and transphobic stereotypes, as well as body shaming stigmas.
As with all of Muholi’s images, the portraits are created through a collaborative process. Muholi and the participant determine the location, clothing and poses together, focusing on producing images that are empowering for both the participant and the audience.
Context & Collectivity
Collective visions lie at the heart of Muholi’s work. Their photography summons care and creates a sanctuary where people can connect and heal together. Muholi’s large network of collaborators includeds many members of their collective, Inkanyiso, which was established in 2006. This means “light” in isiZulu, Muholi’s first language and one of eleven official languages in South Africa. “Queer Activism = Queer Media” is the collective’s motto.
Inkanyiso’s mission is to respond to the lack of visual histories and skills training produced by and for Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community, especially artists. They examine what it means to be simultaneously invisible in history books and hyper-visible in the mainstream media.
Self-organisation, mentorship and skill sharing remain central to Muholi’s life. This room features images offering a collaborative record of public events that play a restorative role in society. Whether documenting Pride marches and protests or private moments such as marriages and funerals, these images form an ever-expanding visual archive. They suggest another way of knowing about and preserving the Black LGBTQIA+ community, becoming a place “where we bring forth our own narratives, that lives on beyond us.”
Faces and Phases – Video
From their earliest days as an activist, Muholi sought to record the first-hand testimonies and experiences of Black LGBTQIA+ people. Giving participants a platform to tell their own story, in their own words, has been an enduring goal. They have said, “Each and every person in the photos has a story to tell, but many of us come from spaces in which most Black people never had that opportunity. If they had it at all, their voices were told by other people. Nobody can tell our story better than ourselves.”
In this room, eight participants share stories of their lives and experiences as members of the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa. Some of them also feature in the Faces and Phases project. The interviews have been conducted and produced by Muholi’s collaborators, some of whom are members of Inkanyiso.
Some testimonies do not use Muholi’s preferred gender pronouns they/them/theirs.
Faces and Phases
Muholi began their on-going series Faces and Phases in 2006. The project currently totals over 500 works. As a collective portrait, it celebrates, commemorates and archives the lives of Black lesbians, transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. They are portrayed using natural light and in settings chosen with the participants, often in their own surroundings. Their stances speak to the power of collaborating with your community. Muholi states, “future generations will note that we were here.”
The history of portraiture is marked by colonial and racial violence. Under apartheid, the policing of Black bodies was enforced by using identification documents with a mug shot. Muholi embarks on portraiture as an act of reclaiming freedom, dignity and togetherness. Faces and Phases includes long and sustained collaborations and friendships. Muholi often returns to photograph the same person over time.
“Faces” refers to the person being photographed. “Phases” signifies a transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and identity to another. It also marks the changes in the participants’ lives. The grid’s gaps indicate individuals that are no longer present in the project, or a portrait yet to be taken. One wall is dedicated to the participants who have passed away. Faces and Phases forms a living archive: isibonelo (evidence) that visualises Muholi’s belief that “we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways.”
Today, their work celebrates Black LGBTQIA+ identity in the new era of democracy after apartheid was brought to an end. It also addresses the on-going risks that the community faces. Muholi has spoken about this being the very means through which they “claim their full citizenship”. The artist’s place within South African histories of activism as they relate to both apartheid and the emergence of queer activism – is explored in this timeline. The timeline helps to highlight particular contexts from which Muholi’s work emerges, and in which it remains deeply rooted.