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Zanele Muholi. (© Najib Nafid)

Visual activism

Photos spotlight brutal hate crimes faced by South Africa’s black lesbian community

By Katie Booth on April 15, 2016

Twenty-two years after ending apartheid and ushering in democracy, South Africa today presents a troubling paradox. Despite being the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution in 1996, and the only country in Africa to recognize same-sex marriage in 2006, violent hate crimes against the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex) community in South Africa — particularly for lesbian women of color — are a growing problem.

Members of the black LGBTI community in South Africa live in fear — not only of being exiled by their peers and family members, but also for their lives. For women and trans people who defy norms of gender expression and sexual orientation, corrective rape, committed as an attempt to “convert” women to heterosexuality, assault, and even murder are rampant in townships across the country.

The magnitude of this widespread violence and intolerance, not to mention the stories of survivors, often go unseen and unheard. But one photographer has dedicated her career to making the South African LGBTI community visible, and the world is taking notice. On April 11, Zanele Muholi was awarded the International Center of Photography (ICP)’s Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism. As she took the stage to accept her award on Monday night, she paused. “Before going on, I want to thank every parent, every lover to the same sex in the house, and trans people in the house,” she said. “Our mothers, our fathers, it’s not a crime to have children like us.”

Muholi is a self-described “visual activist” and her work’s impact extends far beyond the walls of a gallery or museum. Growing up the daughter of a domestic worker during the 1970s in the township of Umlazi, Muholi has lived directly with the threats of violence and alienation facing so many of her peers. She’s also been keenly aware of the lack of written history, acknowledgment, and representation of black queer women in South African society. “My work is about documenting a history of black LGBTI people in South Africa that I didn’t have access to when I came out,” she has said.

Faces and Phases, Muholi’s first major project, is a serene but captivating series depicting black lesbian and trans women. The project, which today has grown to almost 300 portraits, and has been published in a 368 page photobook by Steidl, is an undeniably positive reminder of the existence and humanity of each individual portrayed. “I wanted to use visuals as a way in which to push an agenda, a visual history, to reference and say that this existed,” Zanele told Women in the World. “I’m creating a visual history of these people, which will then inform those who come after us.”

Muholi’s subjects, who represent a number of diverse backgrounds, have stories that are both humbling and heartbreaking. One lesbian woman she photographed, Lungile Cleopatra Dladla, whose story was told in a New Yorker article, survived “corrective rape” as she walked home one night with a friend. An armed man approached them and raped them, telling them, “Ja, today I want to show you that you’re girls.”

Dladla faced an uphill battle when she brought her story to the police, who insisted she wasn’t a woman. “They said, ‘He’s not a girl. How can he be raped?’” she told the New Yorker. Two years later, when she went to the doctor with trouble breathing, she was informed that she was H.I.V. positive.

Racial politics are also a major focus of Muholi’s work. In 2014, she turned the camera towards herself. Taking on multiple personas, her self-portraits in Somnyama Ngonyama ask the viewer to confront aspects of South Africa’s troubled history, along with their own perceptions of race and identity. By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other,” she wrote of the project.

ICP’s Infinity Award is one of several major accomplishments in the past year that have brought Muholi’s work to the forefront of the international stage. In 2015, Faces and Phases, along with several of her other projects, made up a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. “I think Zanele is covering an issue that should be discussed, and through photography, she is changing people’s perceptions,” ICP’s Executive Director Mark Lubell told Women in the World. “Not only is she documenting her community, she has also turned the camera on herself to continue that conversation. I think she has tremendous strength.”

Zanele Muholi accepts the International Center Of Photography's 2016 Infinity award for Documentary and Photojournalism. (Getty Images)
Zanele Muholi accepts the International Center Of Photography’s 2016 Infinity award for Documentary and Photojournalism. (Getty Images)

Chosen by a committee of other reputable members of the photography community, including Charlotte Cotton and Teju Cole, Muholi’s receipt of the Infinity Award is a testament to the impact she’s making, not only on her own community in South Africa, but also on the perceptions of outsiders. Looking back at the tremendous global support that came from artists and activists during the era of apartheid, Muholi stressed the need for continued support and awareness of human rights violations impacting the black LGBTI community in South Africa today.

“The generation that came before ours, they had to deal with apartheid, and the generation after had to deal with HIV/AIDS, etc., and now we’re dealing with hate crime in ways that we would never have expected at this particular time, as South Africa is celebrating 22 years of democracy,” she said. “Still, we are fighting for unjust situations. We are forced to fight, using every tool that is there, to make sure there is no more violence, there is no more hate crime, there are no more lives claimed. Every life lost it means we have lost a member of the community, we have lost somebody’s child, we have lost one of us.”