Visual activist Zanele Muholi pays forward the South African way


Photographers in arms David Goldblatt and Zanele Muholi.

It’s a night to remember when the Ambassador of France to South Africa, Christophe Farnaud, (amidst loud ululating and excitement) honours a South African artist, in this instance visual activist Zanele Muholi, who was awarded the insignia of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) in Pretoria earlier this week.

Muholi is an internationally acclaimed South African photographer whose work is embedded with advocacy on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. As if this award wasn’t honour enough, for those of us gathered the night transformed into something extraordinary, something very South African given our past.

It’s not as though Muholi has had an easy pathway to recognition, but listening to her tell the story of her difficult route to this current recognition, one realises it is the destiny of special artists, that they will find a way.

For Muholi, it was through her mentor, acclaimed photographer David Goldblatt (who incidentally has also received the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres). She knew about him through the Market Photo Workshop, her other home, which he had founded. Muholi simply turned up at his doorstep one day and announced that he was to be her mentor. ”Usually they find you,” she said. But that was not her way. She knew that he was her man and would be the one to guide her.

That’s how their long journey began and how David and his wife Lily took her in, gave her food and care when she needed it and sponsored her international studies. She pointed to “this old white man” and explained how she got to know that “not all white people are racist!” They have obviously lost touch because, reading through the lines, Muholi didn’t want them to know that she needed money – again. It had been enough.

She didn’t know whether the Goldblatts would attend this special night for her, but of course, he is the mentor, she the protégé and as someone who spotted her talent from the beginning, he will surely never let go.

For many South Africans in the room, it was yet another of those stories that confirmed this country’s unique stance to experience humanity.

Ambassador Farnaud_Zanele_Muholi_Embassy_of_France 02
Ambassador Farnaud honours Zanele Muholi.

The Order of Arts and Letters, established in 1957 by the French Minister of Culture, rewards those who, through their ongoing engagement and creativity, have helped develop the arts and literature in France and throughout the world.

In rewarding Muholi, Ambassador Farnaud explained that France is proud to stand beside those who fight for the rights to be free and equal, whoever they are and wherever they are.

“Your courage is a lesson to all those who are blind to injustices and who forget that the battle against ignorance and hate is never won, but needs to be fought every hour of every day. Through your work, you have given black lesbian and transgender communities here and overseas a new visibility. Marginalization and discrimination take many forms, but one of the most pernicious is the denial that a problem exists. Your efforts to raise the subject of LGBTI rights challenge prejudice and complacency everywhere. You shine a light where there is shadow; your work creates a space where there was none,” he said explaining their desire to honour her thus.

He noted that she preferred to be recognized as a “visual activist” rather than an artist but argued that she was both. Born in 1972, she grew up in Umlazi, a township in Durban. In the early ’90s, as the apartheid system ended and South Africa transitioned to democracy, she moved to Johannesburg and earned a living as a hair stylist, then through her 20s took on human resources jobs.

“You found your vocation when you attended the Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt. In 2004 you celebrated your first solo exhibition Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.”

The ambassdador explained that even before her photographic journeys into black female sexualities and genders in Africa she was working as a human rights activist. “In 2002, you co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW), an organization dedicated to providing a safe space for black lesbians. You then spent more than three years researching and documenting hate crimes in order to bring the reality of ‘corrective rape’ assault, HIV and murders of black lesbians to public attention. In 2009 you founded Inkanyiso, a forum that deals with visual arts, activism, media and advocacy.”

Because of her activism, she has earned a global reputation and a long list of awards from institutions around the world. Muholi’s work is now included in major collections including those of MoMa in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and in many other art institutions in France, most recently in Arles.

Even more impressively, she continues to organize and run photography workshops for young women in various townships. “The gap between the provisions of the progressive constitution of South Africa and the failure to defend the LGBTI community from targeted violence is a constant and powerful theme,” he concluded.

With the formalities out of the way, Maholi was celebrated gloriously by praise singer Annalise Stuurman and drag artist Odidi Mfenyana and blessed by pastors Zungu and Royo concluding a memorable night of a young South African honoured.

If want to see Muholi’s latest work, The Market Photo Workshop is currently hosting Faces and Phases 11, a special project by Photo Workshop Alumnus Zanele Muholi that celebrates the 11th anniversary of her acclaimed portrait series documenting black lesbian and transgender individuals from South Africa and beyond.

She describes the project that started in 2006, as an awareness of “the lack of documentation of her community, and its absence from visual history”, driving her to embark on her series of black and white portraits. Since taking her first image of Busi Sigasa at Constitution Hill, she has captured more than 250 portraits, and is now producing follow-up images of her participants as they go through various phases in their lives.

Zanele Muholi image taken by Sipho Gongxela
Zanele Muholi with Faces and Phases 11.  Picture: Sipho Gongxela


Faces and Phases 11 can be viewed at the Market Photo Workshop, 138 Lilian Ngoyi St (old Bree St), Newtown, Johannesburg from Monday – Saturday: 9am – 5pm; Sunday: 10am – 4pm until February 28 2018.