Zanele Muholi: Queering the Photographic Archive

Late last year, the CIHA Blog discussed an upcoming visit to New York by Zanele Muholi, a South African artist and visual activist working in photography, video and installation. In this follow-up piece, a student from the University of Rochester reports back on Muholi’s talk and highlights how Muholi is seeking to change attitudes and global consciousness.

By: Rhea Shinde (University of Rochester)

“My work is strictly black… my work is queer,” said Zanele Muholi, the guest speaker of the University of Rochester’s 2017 annual Two Icons Lecture. Tasked with exploring the intersection of race and gender, Muholi delved into her identity as a lesbian black South African female photographer, documentarian, and activist. She situated her work within the current political climate of South Africa, where queer rights have been guaranteed by the constitution in theory but defiled through violent hate crimes in practice.

Muholi’s photography features black queer participants who are otherwise not represented in South African visual media, except as those mutilated bodies and victims of hatred in the news. She strives to raise the global consciousness and visibility of those who identify as queer and uses her work as a tool of self-definition and social change in her country. Her photographs create a hopeful and resilient counter narrative to the prevailing history of violence against the South African LGBTI community.

In 2013, Muholi released her documentary, We Live in Fear, in conjunction with Human Rights Watch. She highlighted her efforts through Project Inkanyiso, her registered nonprofit organization focused on visual arts, media advocacy, and visual literacy training. Her goal is to provide participants in her photography with the skills to share their own lives and work, especially those who have been marginalized or sensationalized by the mainstream media. Their collaborative efforts of documentation effectively create validation for their collective experience as LGBTI individuals. Muholi emphatically believes that “projecting positivity can lead to change,” while “projecting brutality and violence can lead to further hate crimes.”

Muholi’s particular method of activist resistance, uplifting the narratives of queer black South Africans who have been displaced in their own country, is reminiscent of the larger struggle of post-colonial nationals. The plight of battling oppressive structures within government and society, after having won independence from colonial regimes, is comparable to Muholi’s description of black queer efforts to secure their freedoms and rights in a hostile environment. Both queer black South Africans and citizens of independent African nations who won their freedom from colonial powers are guaranteed claims to their spaces by law. Nevertheless, there exists an invisible power hierarchy in which national cultural identity and queer black cultural identity are subjugated by oppressive hegemonic structures.

In “On National Culture,” a chapter from The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon describes the African Cultural Society’s opposition to the European Cultural Society and postcolonial oppression at large through affirming the existence of African culture and raising national consciousness. He argues that the process of national identity liberation consists of three phases, the influence of Western culture, the internal identity turmoil of “going native”, and the fighting phase of awakening people through revolution. Fanon emphasizes this resistance through the art of native poetry, in which native intellectuals realize the estrangement from their people in order to accurately represent them as subjects of their art.

In a similar vein, Muholi seeks to raise consciousness and affirm the existence of LGBTI culture within South Africa through the medium of her photography. Her work passes through Fanon’s three phases of identity liberation, and then proceeds to transcend initial Western influence to fully come into the native identity of her community. The media of photography and documentary originated in the West but have been claimed by Muholi to construct the narrative of queer black South Africans. In the second phase, Muholi contends with “going native” by authentically queering the photographic archive on a national and global stage. Through projecting positive lesbian icons into the media and trading photography skills to her project participants, Muholi succeeds in awakening her community and inciting revolution.

While Fanon theorizes about the estrangement of native intellectuals, Zanele Muholi minimizes this distance by attempting to make her work as authentically true to the queer black experience as possible. She is tirelessly focused on finding the Zulu language within visual activism and diminishing the significance of English in the visual medium. She accomplishes this by shifting the Western framework of photography, with the inherent power differential between the photographer and her subjects, to a framework where the subjects of photography are active participants in their art, taking as much ownership of the work as the photographer does. Muholi trains her participants to become the next generation documenting protests and resistance, ensuring the sustainability of her queer black native identity revolution.

About the author:

Rhea Shinde is a senior at the University of Rochester (Class of 2018) double majoring in Public Health (emphasis on bioethics) and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies with a legal studies minor.

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