Zanele Muholi: Black, Lesbian and African

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Zanele Muholi: Black, Lesbian and African

Artists sometimes wade into activism unknowingly, while others take it on as a moral imperative. Photographer Zanele Muholi is doing just that, boldly going where no artist in South Africa has gone before.

We met Zanele Muholi back in 2006 in Chicago during the Gay Games. Zanele was traveling with the lesbian South African women’s soccer team, The Chosen Few, who had come on scholarship to the Games. Being an out, black woman in South Africa can get you raped or killed (with little or no legal repercussions to the perpetrators), so the bravery of this young group of athletes held clear and special significance.

When we met Zanele she had with her a self-published book consisting of beautifully composed black & white images of nude lesbian couples. Think Robert Mapplethorpe 1980, the height of the AIDs crisis and his photograph’s of the gay S/M culture, and you’ll get an idea of how radical Zanele’s work is in context, as well as appreciate the parallels between the artists.

Just this morning, someone on my facebook forwarded me a link to the Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, SA. The gallery will be presenting recent works by Muholi. 

The show opens next week on April 22 and is already causing a controversy.

Last week, the South African Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana “stormed out of the exhibition” of Muholi’s show in Johannesburg before giving a scheduled speech. In response to the media, Xingwana later remarked “[it was time for] a long overdue debate on what is art and where do we draw the line between art and pornography."

Zanele Muholi’s response to the Minister's reaction was:

"It makes it look like the government is supportive of homophobia, when in fact they are supposed to be custodians of the Constitution …When parties were electioneering last year, not one of them had any plan to deal with hate crimes. It's like the issue doesn't exist. We have made this Constitution on paper, but in reality, what is the point, when it is not safe for a young black lesbian to walk down the street in a township?"

Muholi’s work will be on view through May 29th. Here are some selections from the upcoming exhibition:

Pearl Hlongwane and Katso Makhafola IV...Johannesburg, 2007

Zinzi and Tozama II, Mowbray, Cape Town, 2010

Amo Senokwane and Lebo Mashifane District Six, Cape Town, 2009

Caitlin and I, Boston, USA, 2009


Comments [10]

karrr's picture

i love the first one

i love the first one

slvbod's picture


You're totally right about the Jennifer Beal-esque eye; but it seems to me more sort of challenging than innocent

mickey06's picture

Strange...never noticed...

I never noticed until right now that the woman standing behind the other in "Amo Senokwane and Lebo Mashifane District Six, Cape Town, 2009" has very Jennifer Beal-esque eyes....anyone??? Or am I delusional?


Grace Moon's picture

funny now that

you point it out, yes. is it the wide eyed innocent look?

tweet tweet @gracemoon

mickey06's picture

Thanks Grace!!!

Exactly what I wanted to see. Youre awesome!

Olivia Mistelle Maxell's picture

It's beautiful work, but some

It's beautiful work, but some of those girls look really young. Like the naked Caucasian female in the last photo. 

Maybe, in some way, that image in particular makes people feel uncomfortable?  Not because she's naked, but just at first glance she resembles a 13 years old child...Could be a subconscious thing to be taken back a little, by it...? 

BUT then body gives the illusion I'm a 13 year old boy at age 32, so...

minniesota's picture

Heard about this

I had heard about this incident earlier via a South African archival site that I follow on Facebook (

Here are links to a couple of interesting responses I read discussing the role of culture, art and responsibility of an Arts & Culture Minister:

1. Innovative Women: Who’s Art Is It Anyway? By Andile Magengele (March 23, 2010).

2. On Looking and Not Looking. Guest Blog by Gabeba Baderoon (March 14, 2010).

Still searching for the right brainy quote.

MacLass_19's picture

Art vs Porn

"The overall aim to my project is to commemorate and celebrate the lives of black lesbians in South Africa from an insider's perspective, regardless of the harsh realities and oppressions (which includes rife murders and 'curative rapes' of black lesbians) that we are still facing in the post-apartheid, democratic South Africa."

How can anyone not understand how incredibly brave, and historically relevant, this art is. Not only does it represent empowerment to women who live in fear - but, it can bring into light the contemporary struggles that lesbians of color face because of historic ignorance. Maybe that's where the fear comes in...the provocative, and allegorical imagery, forces haters to see what they have chosen to ignore.

The entire question of pornography vs art is old. Perhaps the South African, 'powers that be', might want to consider declaring acts of violence as pornographic, then they could punish those perpetrators swiftly and effectively. 

*I went to the Michael Stevenson Gallery link. There have been some phenomenal artists and showings there...thank you for the hook up.


mickey06's picture


"acts of violence as pornographic"....what a provacative thought!!

Although, I probably couldnt use it because I find pornography useful and necessary in certain ways but I see the spirit of the statement. Nice.

slvbod's picture


I don't see any question of line between pornography and art there, just love, and beauty