A South African visual activist whose photographic portrayals of LGBTI persons in her country garnered her awards such as the 2013 Carnegie International Fine Prize, Zanele Muholi strives to document the lives of people who face incredible violence in her series Faces and Phases. Muholi, who co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, also created a blog, Inkanyiso queer media, in 2009, a space where the stories of many of her series’s participants are featured. Two of Muholi’s photographs appear in the Yale University Art Gallery exhibition Contemporary Art/South Africa. Muholi herself will be giving an Artist Talk today at 1:30 at the YUAG. WEEKEND sat down to talk to her about her inspiration for the series, as well as the community that her work both draws from and fosters.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your photographs in the exhibition?
A. Beyond the exhibition, I started working on the “Faces and Phases” series, which is a group of portraits, in 2006, after I lost a friend. The photographs were inspired by a person’s life, and I realized at the time that we needed more images of black lesbians, who are doing some work or things within the LGBTI community at home. In America you have Audre Lorde; in South Africa we have different names but you never get to be at a level where Audre has been. So you have a young generation that expresses themselves differently, or human beings who identify as lesbians who contribute a great deal. I thought to myself that it was important for one to start this massive archive that speaks to different levels of who we are and what we do in South African communities.
Busi Sigasa [the first person photographed for the series] was a 25-year-old friend who was a survivor of hate crime at the time, and she survived multiple kinds of rape incidents. When we lost her in 2007, she was positive and out. She was an HIV activist and spoke out about her status at the time. She was only 25 years old. It’s then that I realized there was a need for us to have visuals of our community members and remember them as they were still alive, than when they were gone. I started working religiously on that visual history which marked the present and the loss that we felt as friends and colleagues who were with them.
Q. What made you choose photography as the visual medium through which you’re expressing these sentiments?
A. I like photography because you don’t need to be literate to understand a photograph. You don’t need any level of expertise to understand and see yourself in a photograph. You could only read a few elements that are in a particular image — and go beyond if you like. I like the fact that photography is accessible for any person who is a member of a particular community, or who feels like wanting to know more by just looking at that image. Regardless of the way those images are captured, photos are about life stories, so the more I capture different photographs, [the more] I’m aware that it’s somebody’s life story, and not just subjects. I look at those photographed as participants in a project. They have their own lives in which they engage with you. I like the accessibility; I like the tangibility of those photographs; I like the fact that there is a relationship built between the photographer and the people who are featured in the photograph, if the photographer cares to know more about who the people in the photographs are.
Q. So can you tell me a little bit about how you forge that relationship?
A. These are the people that are partaking in a visual project that marks a moment in history. I work with friends, and friends of friends, and people that I meet along the way through those that I’m connected with, so it’s never an issue of who is in the photographs and how I get to know each person or each participant in the series. The dots are connected by those who are connected to me and beyond me — some of them are ex-colleagues, people that I work with in different projects, some are people that I meet through the colleagues of friends, or ex-girlfriends and lovers, etc.
Q. How do your participants respond to your project?
A. Response is about involvement — how do they get involved and how do they involve themselves afterwards? Because you have already built a relationship, establishment of that relationship is major. My method has been not quite complex. It’s a method of keeping up with the people who are in the project even though it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than us, it’s bigger than life itself-—it’s becoming even more popular than how I thought it would be. What happens now is that I try to keep in touch as much as possible with the people who are featuring in the series, and then I request some of them to write their own stories in order for people to know that they are indeed involved. We are not situated in one space — some people have since left the country, some are still in South Africa but busy with their own thing. I meet some people at protests, parties, activist events, so that relationship gets to be nurtured or nourished in various ways. Some people just vanish and are out of the radar, but the fact that they were there, or are still there, and are having their voices heard and published in various places means they cannot be dismissed.
Q. How does that participation relate to your blog?
A. The blog is not mine, specifically — I update it, I started it, but it’s for us. Say you are in my photographs, and then it’s your own story — you have your own personal life and how you do things — so it can’t be mine. I’m just doing my part—you have to do your part in order for other people to get to hear and get to know you better than just the photograph that I have taken. For each and every photo, especially if captured with care, there’s always that second layer, and that layer cannot just be dismissed or handled carelessly. It means that we always need to be delicate when we deal with different situations, especially where human life is concerned.
Q. What do you hope the long-serving purpose, or the legacy of your project will be?
A. The existence of the resistance is really, really important for posterity. For any person who doesn’t know what is going on in South Africa currently, at least people get to take something, feel something, see something, and act or react after seeing whatever they’re denouncing. Especially right now there’s a high level of hate crimes and brutal murders of black lesbians in various townships — people have been killed unnecessarily. So when one reads about lesbians in South Africa, there’s always that question of why are these things happening? Like any other atrocity that exists in any space around the world, that becomes that moment in history that ends up with a monument of some kind. Capturing those movements as part of our moments is very, very important before any monuments are erected in whatever spaces. It’s very important for [future generations] to know that there are so many people who fought for their freedom and who deserved to be celebrated and recognized and respected for what they have done. This is a public visual history that I want the next person to access .
Q. Is there anything else you would like to broach on this topic, or on your work being featured here at the YUAG?
A. What is important in my work is to reach out to as many mainstream spaces as possible and to not only limit it to queer spaces. When you read some blurb that is on the wall, the questions that come after mean that one is curious and gets to be educated around issues that are happening beyond just the US space or spaces. Then, maybe it might lead to one longing for more, so I’m grateful to be invited here because if it wasn’t for this work I would not have been here. Being considered in that and having the members of my community being considered at this respected space means a lot to me, and I know that this is not only for me, but for many others who might not be here, but who exist out there in various townships of South Africa and beyond.
A previous version of this article stated that Busi Sigasa was a mother. In fact, Muholi was referencing Buhle Msibi, a poet, writer and lesbian mother who also inspired Muholi.