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Zanele Muholi Confronts Hate, Rewrites Queer History

Despite patches of fierce acceptance, South Africa is still a place where a leading political spokesperson sought votes this year by saying the best solution to the LGBTQI “problem is to kill them!”

Born in Durban in 1972 during the apartheid, Zanele Muholi is a visual activist pushing against this hate. She began her project Faces and Phases in 2006 in South Africa to document black LGBTQI communities through 500 pieces of positive, traditional portraiture.

Muholi studied Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and completed an MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, Toronto, in 2009. Rewriting queer history, Muholi has rose to fame forefronting the tragedies and the victories of the communities. She exhibited 48 prints from Faces and Phases at the 2013 Carnegie International, and claimed the International’s Fine Prize for emerging artist.

“The work that I produce is based on experiences. It’s work that is biographical and it’s work that is also at the same time ethnographical,” Muholi said. “It’s work about the resistance of people who are South Africans, who in a way can be given a space” to claim their position.

The portraits are purposefully staged. Muholi does their hair, poses them against static backgrounds, and instructs her participants to “confront” the camera, unsmiling.

“It’s like talking back. The whole projection process requires or demands your sixth sense,” Muholi told Pittsburgh-based podcast Queer and Brown on her visit here for the exhibition.

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Zanele Muholi, Vuyelwa “Vuvu” Makubetse, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. Carnegie Museum of Art, A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund.

Muholi said she doesn’t “come in and out of people’s lives.” She founded Inkanyiso, a live-in collective of artists, journalists, and poets from the Faces and Phases project. Inkanyiso acts as an artist community and safe haven, sharing resources for their work on the project and the Inkanyiso blog.

“I call the people in my photographs participants, because you partake in a project that will inform many audiences,” Muholi said to Human Rights Watch.

South Africa was the first country to criminalize discrimination on sexuality, as well as the first African country to legalize same sex marriages. But the laws have hardly stymied hate crimes, particularly the rampant practice of “corrective” rapes. Men rape lesbians to cure them and make them learn “how to be a real woman,” according to “Rise of ‘Corrective Rapes’ on Lesbians in South Africa.”

There is no hate crime legislation to chart the attacks, but according to “‘Corrective Rape’: Fighting a South African Scourge,” at least 500 lesbians are victims of corrective rape each year. Almost all assailants walk free, and judges and police officers often don’t categorize rape as a hate crime, undercutting movements to spotlight and end the practice.

There are various campaigns, groups, and friendly faces fighting for better standards, such as the 07-07-07 campaign to consider sexual orientation as a factor in assault court cases—to acknowledge that these aren’t random rapes. But a group of lesbians protesting the Johannesburg Pride Parade, focusing on the lack of attention to corrective rape, were largely scolded by the community for “ruining” the day.

Muholi’s work calls attention to the practice of corrective rapes, but spins the narrative. As she draws attention to violence through her Inkanyiso group—documenting LGBTQI funerals together—she also wants to show positive aspects of life outside of the brutal murders synonymous with black African lesbian women.

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Zanele Muholi, Zimaseka ‘Zim’ Salusalu Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011. Carnegie Museum of Art, A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund.

“There is nothing that focuses on same-sex love versus these hate crimes. When do we start talking about intimacy?” Muholi asked in a video for Humans Right Watch.

When possible, Muholi brings members of Inkanyiso with her to exhibitions to expose them to tangible success. In Pittsburgh, Muholi traveled with journalist and activist Lerato Dumse.

“When I first heard Zanele was taking pictures and going overseas, I thought, ‘Oh, not another person telling the African story,’” Dumse said. “But to have someone tell me to write so consistently, especially in the township, it was something new to me, and I liked that a lot.”

Hardly a leisure trip, the pair blogged, podcasted, and hosted events. Muholi, in partnership with CMOA, presented a screening of her documentary on black lesbians in South Africa, Difficult Love (2010), with co-director Peter Goldsmid at the Homestead Carnegie Library.

Her documentary work comes from a place of difficulty and pain: “We are all victims somehow,” Zanele said. “But there is more to our lives.”

“It was easier for me to take photographs and also political to take photographs because I grew up in a setting where only men … had an opportunity to press the power button, so my attitude now is that I shoot like a man,” Muhloi said. “Most of the pictures we know in history are produced by men and women are subjects of those men. I don’t agree. I really don’t agree.”

In a physical act of erasure, a burglar robbed Zanele’s home in Vredehoek, Cape Town, in 2012, taking a laptop and 20 external hard drives. The hard drives contained three documented lesbian funerals and five years of work.

Unsilenced, she’s taken more than 250 portraits, compiled in a book, Faces and Phases 2006–2014. Muholi’s work remains on display in the museum’s Scaife Galleries.

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Installation view of Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases in the Heinz Galleries during the 2013 Carnegie International.

Since its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International has been Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature survey series, the preeminent exhibition of new international art in the United States. To learn more about the artists and artworks showcased throughout the history of this storied exhibition, visit the archives.

Since its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International has been Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature survey series, the preeminent exhibition of new international art in the United States. To learn more about the artists and artworks showcased throughout the history of this storied exhibition, visit the archives.