Queer Faces Made Visible in Africa

July 1, 2013

Despite South Africa's expansive gay rights laws and international leadership on marriage equality, the nation's LGBTQ women have been frequent targets of brutal violence. Challenging their marginalization, artist Zanele Muholi captures the individuality of queer women throughout Africa in resolutely political photo-portraits.

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Zanele Muholi, Hlomela Msesele, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Hlomela Msesele, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

South Africa remains the only African country that permits same-sex marriage, ever since the nation’s Parliament granted same-sex couples the right to marry in 2006. Yet that same year, in a village outside Cape Town, a 19-year-old, openly gay woman was stoned and beaten to death by four men because of her sexuality, one of the most brutal among widespread attacks against LGBTQ-identified women. The men were eventually convicted of murder and received lengthy prison sentences, but not before Human Rights Watch issued a report, “We’ll Show You You’re a Woman,” highlighting the prevalence of “curative” rape and condemning South Africa for “desperately failing lesbian and transgender people.”

2006 was also the year that South African artist and self-described “visual activist” Zanele Muholi began “Faces and Phases,” an ongoing series of photographs of lesbian and transgender women in Africa. Provoked by acts of homophobic violence against her friends, Muholi turned to portraiture as a form that would memorialize, celebrate and embolden other queer black women, who are particularly marginalized in the cultural traditions of many African countries. Making her community visible, Muholi’s works unmask not only the humanity of her participants, but also the complexity and mutability of their individual identities.

Reflecting on her practice in 2009, the artist wrote: “I need to underscore that naming ourselves and ‘being’ is more than a fashion statement or a research topic. Rather, it is a political consciousness that we do not have a choice about. To be black, lesbian and African is by its very nature political in a world that is still overwhelmingly heterosexual.”
 

Zanele Muholi, Dee Mashoko, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Dee Mashoko, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Lynette Mokhooa, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Lynette Mokhooa, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Vuyelwa Makubetse, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Zanele Muholi, Vuyelwa Makubetse, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Siya Kolela, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Siya Kolela, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Kebarileng Sebetoane, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2012. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Kebarileng Sebetoane, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2012. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Tinashe Wakapila, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Tinashe Wakapila, Harare, Zimbabwe , 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Lungile Cleo Dladla, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Lungile Cleo Dladla, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, "TK" Thembi Khumalo, BB Section Umlazi township, Durban, 2012. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, “TK” Thembi Khumalo, BB Section Umlazi township, Durban, 2012. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Akhona Hentili, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Akhona Hentili, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Ayanda Mqakayi, Nyanga East, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Ayanda Mqakayi, Nyanga East, Cape Town, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Mayita Tamangani, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Zanele Muholi, Mayita Tamangani, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2011. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

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