Zanele Muholi SOUTH AFRICA, b. 1972


"Fine artists deal with finery, but I deal with painful material."


- Zanele Muholi

South African photographer and filmmaker Zanele Muholi was born in 1972 in Umlazi, South Africa. Muholi self-identifies as a visual activist, and their development as a photographer is deeply intertwined with their advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community in South Africa and beyond. After Muholi cofounded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, they enrolled at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, South Africa, established by the photographer David Goldblatt in 1989. In 2009 Muholi earned an MFA in documentary media from Ryerson University, Toronto.


Muholi has produced a number of photographic series investigating the severe disconnect that exists in post-apartheid South Africa between the equality promoted by its 1996 Constitution and the ongoing bigotry toward and violent acts targeting individuals within the LGBTQ community. As an ensemble, Muholi’s images display the depth and diversity of this group in South Africa and in various countries that the artist has visited. With a profound commitment to redressing the social injustices faced by LGBTQ people, Muholi embraces a subjective perspective in their practice by forming relationships with the individuals they depict, including the women in Only Half the Picture (2003–06), the transgender or gay men in Beulahs (2006–10), and the couples in Being (2007).


The early photographs that comprise the series Only Half the Picture feature an image of a woman binding her breasts, another of two women laughing in a sun-drenched room, and close-ups of black flesh marked by scars—together offering glimpses into the subjects’ varied experiences, rituals, joys, and hardships.


In the individual black-and-white portraits of lesbians, women, and trans men that comprise Muholi’s ongoing Faces and Phases series (2006– ) the sitters’ nuanced expressions and distinctive dress challenge the formulaic frontal pose of traditional portraiture. While nearly all the people who appear in the series display a stony expression that boldly confronts the gaze of the viewer, each face intimates something different—curiosity, disenchantment, pride, frustration, or compassion. In constructing a visual archive of individuals from the LGBTQ community, Muholi also highlights the agency of the subjects by providing an outlet for self-representation.

Solo exhibitions of Muholi’s work have been hosted by Casa África, Las Palmas, Spain (2011); Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg (2012); Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, Italy (2013); Schwules Museum, Berlin (2014); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015); Kulturhistorek Museum, Oslo (2016); Autograph ABP, London (2017); Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (2017); and Museo de Arte moderno de Buenos Aires (2018). Their work has been included at numerous group exhibitions including the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York (2015); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2016); High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2017); and Walther Collection Project Space, New York (2018). Photographs from Muholi’s Faces and Phases series were included in the São Paulo Biennial (2010), Documenta (2012), and the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2013). Muholi lives and works in Johannesburg.