Rewriting the LGBTI History of South Africa

Artist Zanele Muholi at WCMA“One cannot claim a history without rewriting it,” says South African visual activist Zanele Muholi, who rewrites the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and intersexed (LGBTI) community in South Africa with her intimate photographic portraits, many of which are now on view at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).

“WCMA, as one of the premier sites on campus for the critical discussion of art by living artists, wanted to introduce students, faculty, and the broader community to this artist,” says Maurita Poole, the exhibition curator. “Muholi is not only a visual activist but a leading contemporary artist who creates visually arresting photographs.”  

The exhibition, titled “Zanele Muholi,” encompasses video footage and three of Muholi’s photographic series: Faces and Phases (2006-present), which consists of black-and-white portraits of lesbians confronting ostracism, discrimination, and violence; Beulahs (2006–2010), color photographs of young transgendered and gay men dressed in traditionally female clothing; and Being (2007), depicting love and eroticism between women.

One of the videos shows Muholi preparing a participant (she rejects the term subject) to be photographed.  Another shows a wedding between two women; gay marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006, and the post-apartheid constitution protects civil rights for the LGBTI community.

Despite the legality of homosexuality in South Africa, “we are fighting a new war where lesbians and transmen are being curatively raped due to gender expression and sexuality,” Muholi says. The violence is intended to “treat” homosexuality, often leading to HIV infection and sometimes ending in murder. “I have, in part, embarked on this journey out of fear,” she says.

Muholi, who completed an advanced photography course at Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in 2003 and earned an M.F.A. form Ryerson University in Toronto in 2009, has dedicated her life to the struggle of the South African LGBTI community. Some of the participants in her photographs have succumbed to AIDS, and Muholi carries a sense of loss as she describes the lives of the participants in the project.

“Threaded through the show is her visual activism,” Poole says. “This is an archive for the community, documenting people who have previously been ignored and rendered invisible, and making sure that their history is not forgotten and that it’s given the richest and deepest contextualization.”

History professor Gretchen Long and the students in her “Black Women in the U.S.” class were given a tour of the exhibition by the artist in early February, when Muholi was on campus to install it. Muholi’s work, Long says, “grapples with a lot of the issues I talk about in class—the way racial hierarchies operate, the high stakes of an ‘out’ person in some contexts, and the ways people find to assert their dignity and soulfulness in the midst of horrific circumstances.”

For Muholi—who calls what’s going on in South Africa “queercide”—it all comes back to the participants. “Not everybody will make it to the history books,” she says. “It’s up to us to ensure that those who dare to be counted, those who put their lives on line, are respected for helping the many who cannot.”


“Zanele Muholi” is on view at the Williams College Museum of Art through April 27, 2014.