The powerful images taken by Zanele Muholi, the photographer redefining LGBT+ black beauty

Olivia Campbell
Photos Zanele Muholi

For nearly two decades, acclaimed photographer Zanele Muholi has painstakingly documented the lives of South Africa’s black LGBT+ community – a group who’ve all too often had their voices left out of the movement.

Often in monochrome, the award-winning artist’s dynamic work features brave individuals who dare to live their most authentic lives, despite the oppression and discrimination that comes with such a choice. Their work is to be showcased at the Tate Modern this autumn – the photographer’s first major survey in the UK.

In South Africa, LGBT+ rights are a tangle of contradictions. The country has some of the most progressive discrimination laws on paper – it was the first to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and legalised same-sex marriage in 2006, before many other nations. But a large proportion of South Africa’s two million LGBT+ members still face violence and intolerance.

Indeed, Muholi, who uses they/them pronouns, has previously said their goal is to “rewrite a black queer and trans visual history [for] the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes”.

Their entry into the art world began in 2004 with a solo exhibit, Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture. Some of these photos alluded to traumatic experiences, such as corrective rape, a sick act by a certain group of men who believe that attacking lesbians will “cure” them of their homosexuality. The images are as powerful as they are symbolic – others focus on moments between women, while others purposely obscure gender and only reveal certain parts of the body, often with scars as the focus.

Since then, they have produced a number of series that celebrate positive representations. These include Brave Beauties, which celebrates non-binary people and trans women; and Being, which honours the powerful love between same-sex couples. Photos from both will make up part of the Tate exhibit.

Reclaiming black identity is also a prominent theme throughout the photographer’s work. The defining motif that can be found throughout is an exaggerated contrast of skin tone, which has been enhanced to challenge western standards of white beauty. “I’m reclaiming my blackness,” the artist has told Sleek Magazine, “which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other.”

Their ongoing series Faces and Phases has been capturing portraits of lesbians since 2006. With nearly 300 subjects, the project sees each participant look directly at the camera, challenging the viewer to look in their eyes. To Muholi, the series is a direct reaction to the history of colonial photography of black people, the majority of which has been taken by white photographers.

More recently, they’ve begun using themselves as a subject. The ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama, isiZulu for Hail the Dark Lioness, is a collection of self-portraits that challenge the viewer to consider heavy themes such as racism, colonialism and sexual politics.

Muholi doesn’t consider themselves an artist, but rather a visual activist dedicated to reclaiming the narrative of black identity and queerness. Art is a political tool, and for Muholi, their lens is an instrument for change.

‘Zanele Muholi’ was due to open at the Tate Modern in April. However, due to coronavirus, this has been pushed back to autumn. Find out more about the exhibit here

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