Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, a township southwest of Durban, South Africa, in 1972. From self-portraiture to photographs of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people living in South Africa, Muholi creates work that asserts the presence of South Africa’s historically marginalized and discriminated LGBTI community. Both joyful and courageous, Muholi self-identifies as a visual activist, driven by a dedication to owning their voice, identity, and history and providing space for others in their community to do the same.
In the self-portrait series, Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), Muholi exaggerates the darkness of their skin tone and tries on different characters and costumes both to experiment with South Africa’s layered history and cultures and to record their existence as a queer Zulu person. For the ongoing, lifetime project Faces and Phases, Muholi creates arresting portraits of Black lesbian and transgender individuals. The project documents the visual history of this overlooked queer community, in the hopes of eradicating the stigma, violence, and negativity that has pervaded it. In the Brave Beauties series, Muholi focuses their camera on transgender people who participate in beauty pageants, powerfully expressing and claiming their femininity.
Muholi studied advanced photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and completed an MFA in documentary media at Ryerson University, Toronto (2009). Awards and residencies include France’s Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters (2017); ICP Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism (2016); Africa’Sout! Courage and Creativity Award (2016); Outstanding International Alumni Award from Ryerson University (2016); the Fine Prize, for an emerging artist at the 2013 Carnegie International (2013); and a Prince Claus Award (2013). Muholi’s work has been exhibited at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (2017); Kulturhistorek Museum, Oslo (2016); Brooklyn Museum (2015); Schwules Museum, Berlin (2014); Venice Biennale (2013); Documenta 13 (2012); and Casa Africa, Las Palmas (2011). Muholi is an honorary professor at the Hochschule für Künste Bremen. Muholi lives and works in Johannesburg.
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“I photograph different LGBTI individuals, risking my life, challenging the myth that says, being gay, being trans is un-African.”