Zanele Muholi is a visual activist, humanitarian and art practitioner who focuses on the documentation and celebration of the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex communities.
Born in Umlazi, Durban and now residing in Cape Town, Muholi currently works between Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Between 2001 and 2003, they studied Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. In 2009 they completed an MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, Toronto. In 2013, they became an Honorary Professor at the University of the Arts/Hochschule für Künste Bremen. In 2021, they started the Muholi Arts Institute (MAI) in Cape Town, which focuses on art education.
Beginning in 2006, Muholi responded to the continuing discrimination and violence faced by the LGBTI community by photographing Black lesbian and transgender individuals, resulting in the ongoing portrait project, Faces and Phases. Their self-proclaimed mission is “to re-write a Black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond”. These arresting portraits are part of Muholi’s contribution towards a more democratic and representative South African homosexual history. Through this positive imagery, Muholi hopes to offset the stigma and negativity attached to queer identity in African society.
The more recent series Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) shifts the lens with Muholi becoming both participant and image-maker. Experimenting with different characters and archetypes, this ongoing series of self-portraits references specific events in South Africa’s political history. By exaggerating the darkness of their skin tone, Muholi reclaims their Blackness, and offsets the culturally dominant images of Black women in the media today.
Muholi is invested in educational activism, community outreach and youth development. In 2009 they founded Inkanyiso (www.inkanyiso.org), a forum for queer and visual (activist) media and in 2002 co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW). They facilitate access to art spaces for youth practitioners through projects such as Ikhono LaseNatali and continue to provide photography workshops for young women and in the townships through PhotoXP.
Awards and accolades received include the Image Arts Wall of Fame at Toronto Metropolitan University (2022); International Center of Photography’s Spotlights (2022); Spectrum International Prize for Photography (2020); Lucie Award for Humanitarian Photography (2019); the Rees Visionary Award by Amref Health Africa (2019); a fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society, UK (2018); France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2017); Mbokodo Award in the category of Visual Arts (2017); ICP Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism (2016); Africa’Sout! Courage and Creativity Award (2016); Outstanding International Alumni Award from Ryerson University (2016); Fine Prize for an emerging artist at the 2013 Carnegie International; Prince Claus Award (2013); Index on Censorship – Freedom of Expression art award (2013); and the Casa Africa Award for Best Female Photographer, and Fondation Blachère Award at Les Rencontres de Bamako Biennial of African Photography (2009).
Solo exhibitions of Muholi’s work have taken place at institutions including Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), Paris (2023); Museo delle Culture (MUDEC) Photo, Milan (2023); National Gallery of Iceland (2022); Kunstforeningen Gl Strand, Denmark (2022); Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Spain (2022); Fotografihuset, Norway (2022); the Finnish Museum of Photography (2022); the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, USA (2022); Tate Modern, London, UK (2020-21); Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden (2021); Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany (2021); Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany (2021); Cummer Museum, Florida, USA (2021); Norval Foundation, Cape Town, South Africa (2020); Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard University, USA (2020); Seattle Art Museum, USA (2019); Colby Museum, Maine, USA (2019); Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Georgia, USA (2018); New Art Exchange, Nottingham, UK (2018); Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, Argentina (2018); LUMA Westbau, Zurich, Switzerland (2018); Fotografiska, Stockholm, Sweden (2018); Durban Art Gallery: a survey exhibition conceptualised as a homecoming, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa (2017); Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg, South Africa (2017); Glasgow School of Art, Scotland (2017); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands (2017); Autograph ABP, London, UK (2017); Maitland Institute, Cape Town, South Africa (2017); North Carolina Museum of Art, USA (2016); Standard Bank Gallery, Makhanda, South Africa (2016); Gallatin Galleries, New York, USA (2016); Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK (2015); Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA (2015); Akershus Kunstsenter, Norway (2015); Einsteinhaus, Ulm, Germany (2014); Schwules Museum, Berlin, Germany (2014); Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, USA (2014); and Casa Africa, Las Palmas, Spain (2011). The Faces and Phases series has been shown at the South African Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013); dOCUMENTA 13 (2012), and the 29th São Paulo Biennial (2010).
Muholi exhibited in May You Live in Interesting Times, the 58th Venice Biennale (2019), produced a city-wide project titled Masihambisane – on Visual Activism for Performa 17, New York, USA (2017) and featured in the inaugural exhibitions at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa.
Muholi has exhibited extensively in group shows across the globe, including at the 22nd Sydney Biennale; Fotografiska, New York, US; Guggenheim, New York, US; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, US; National Gallery of Victoria Triennial, Melbourne, Australia; Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain; LUMA, Arles, France; S.M.A.K Ghent, Belgium; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, France; Kulturhistorisk Museum, Oslo, Norway; The Walther Collection, Ulm, Germany; and Museo Amparo, Mexico, among others.
Muholi won the 2019 Best Photography Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation for Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail, The Dark Lioness (Aperture). The series has now been interpreted into a dot-to-dot colouring book, Connect the Dots.
Other publications include Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases 2006-14 (Steidl and The Walther Collection, 2014); Zanele Muholi: African Women Photographers #1 (Casa Africa and La Fábrica, 2011); Faces and Phases (Prestel, 2010); and Only half the picture (Stevenson, 2006).