The South African photographer Zanele Muholi refuses to call the people in her portraits “subjects” and prefers “participants.” Her work explores gender, sexuality and the intersection of the two and focuses on the black LGBTI community of South Africa, specifically lesbians who are often her own friends and acquaintances. In her ongoing series Faces and Phases, Muholi’s goal is to create positive visual representations of that community.
In Muholi’s portrait of Lumka Stemela, a black South African lesbian, her participant is frontally posed from the chest up with her face as the main focus. The bright white of her shirt’s collar draws the viewer to her commanding eyes. Lumka’s powerful gaze confronts and challenges the viewer.
Post-apartheid South Africa established some of the earliest laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2006, it became the first and only African nation to legalize same sex marriage. Despite these legislative and political achievements, there is still intense and prevalent homophobia in South African society. Currently, there is no anti hate-crime legislation in the country despite the assaults, “corrective rapes” and murders that are regularly directed at gays and lesbians. Muholi considers her work to be part of a new “visual archive” aimed at disrupting the established narrative of erasure and invisibility of black LGBTI people in her country.
Through her photographic portraits, Muholi’s participants claim their humanity in the face of extreme violence and oppression.
-Emma Kennedy ‘16, Curatorial Intern, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum (April 2016)
Zanele Muholi composed these portraits with her sitters filling the frame and looking directly into the camera. They meet us with powerful gazes, seeming to examine us as much as we do them.
The women in Zanele Muholi’s series, Faces and Phases , are lesbians. They live in southern African nations, especially South Africa, where they are often persecuted for their sexual orientation. In these countries L.G.B.T. individuals are victims of brutal beatings, “corrective rapes,” and even murder. By agreeing to participate in this photographic project, these women risked physical harm, yet they pose boldly in Muholi’s images.
In his riveting study of the middle ages, Johan Huizinga described people from that period enduring “the violent tenor of life.” Without photography we can only imagine the emotional impact that must have had. In Muholi’s photographs, we look into the eyes of individuals living in terror, yet who stand defiant in the face of the “violent tenor” of their own lives.