Despite South Africa’s expansive gay rights laws and international leadership on marriage equality, the nation’s LGBTQ women have been frequent targets of brutal violence. Challenging their marginalization, artist Zanele Muholi captures the individuality of queer women throughout Africa in resolutely political photo-portraits.
South Africa remains the only African country that permits same-sex marriage, ever since the nation’s Parliament granted same-sex couples the right to marry in 2006. Yet that same year, in a village outside Cape Town, a 19-year-old, openly gay woman was stoned and beaten to death by four men because of her sexuality, one of the most brutal among widespread attacks against LGBTQ-identified women. The men were eventually convicted of murder and received lengthy prison sentences, but not before Human Rights Watch issued a report, “We’ll Show You You’re a Woman,” highlighting the prevalence of “curative” rape and condemning South Africa for “desperately failing lesbian and transgender people.”
2006 was also the year that South African artist and self-described “visual activist” Zanele Muholi began “Faces and Phases,” an ongoing series of photographs of lesbian and transgender women in Africa. Provoked by acts of homophobic violence against her friends, Muholi turned to portraiture as a form that would memorialize, celebrate and embolden other queer black women, who are particularly marginalized in the cultural traditions of many African countries. Making her community visible, Muholi’s works unmask not only the humanity of her participants, but also the complexity and mutability of their individual identities.
Reflecting on her practice in 2009, the artist wrote: “I need to underscore that naming ourselves and ‘being’ is more than a fashion statement or a research topic. Rather, it is a political consciousness that we do not have a choice about. To be black, lesbian and African is by its very nature political in a world that is still overwhelmingly heterosexual.”
Faces and Phases 2006 – 2014, the book that has earned her a nomination for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, the South African ‘visual activist’ Zanele Muholi suggests I look at the back first. There I find a detailed time line with examples of the political and personal hatred that LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people have faced from as far back as 1700.
To be seen means a lot to us,’ Muholi says. ‘To show the portraits is a political statement. It means being respected.’
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