Zenele Muholi, who lives and works in Johannesburg, is a photographer and visual activist who explores Black lesbian and gay identities in contemporary South Africa. Muholi connects the visual with activism and is always pushing a political agenda by addressing the preponderance of hate crimes against homosexuals in South Africa. As a transgender person Muholi uses the pronoun ‘they’ for self-identification.
Muholi enrolled at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, South Africa, which was established in 1989 by photographer David Goldblatt who became their mentor. In 2009, Muholi earned an M.F.A. in documentary media from Toronto’s Ryerson University. In 2013, Muholi was appointed Honorary Professor at the University of the Arts Bremen in Germany.
Muholi makes moving portraits of the LGBTQ+ community to give a voice to transgender people and to show their subjects as multifaceted, confident individuals. Muholi embraces a subjective perspective by forming relationships and friendships with the individuals they photograph. Muholi has set up mobile studios not fixated in any one particular place to go to the places where people live and to set up photo shoots in these particular spaces. For Muholi, any space is a possible space to take photographs and empower the people shown in their series.
For the 2006-2011 series “Faces and Phases,” Muholi photographed more than 200 members of Africa’s lesbian community to preserve “an often invisible community for posterity.” These works have also captured the survivors of “corrective rape.” In the “Brave Beauties” series, Muholi photographs male transgender people who participate in beauty pageants to give a voice to them so that they can be seen as strong and beautiful women.
After making portraits of others, Muholi delved into self-portraiture as a Zulu person responding to specific historical moments, especially the events of 2012, a time of massacre and cruelty in South Africa. The 2016 “Ntozakhe II, Parktown” is a black-and-white shot of the artist looking off into the distance. In the 2018 series, “Somnyama Ngonyama” (“Hail the Dark Lioness”), Muholi in some 365 self portraits has transformed into a domestic worker, mother, Afrofuturist, oracle, etc. exploring racism, sexuality, and the politics of possessing a Black body.
Working in an African tradition, Muholi sometimes wears feathers, cowrie shells, or headdresses made out of cleaning tools, used by domestic workers like their mother, and intensifies black skin tones so that the whites of the subjects’ eyes radiate in high contrast.
Muholi’s photographs were shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale and at the 2019 Venice Biennale. The artist received the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government in 2017. Muholi has had solo exhibitions at Tate Modern in London, Fotografisa in Stockholm, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam among others. In 2020, Muholi mounted solo exhibitions in Cape Town and Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.
Muholi had a first mid-career retrospective at Tate Modern which was on view through June 6, 2021. It featured portraits and self-portraits to deal with personal and traumatic experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa.