OCA Preliminaries: Zanele Muholi

Note: I am updating this post as I go along

I am currently finishing up the “An Introduction to Studying in HE” course of the OCA. Even though the course isn’t compulsory, I could have started right on the fun stuff i.e. photography, I wanted to read through the learning materials and finishing the assignments. Why? – you might ask.

In order to learn more, of course. And perhaps picking up some useful tips and tricks regarding research and studying. After all, I try my best to be all about exploration and learning.

In the last assignment of the course we’re to research a particular subject we find interesting. It might be an well-known artist/practitioner or a work of art we find intriguing.

When choosing my subject I wanted to pick something or someone that

  1. wasn’t featured big time in the book collection at home (we’re actually two photographers in this house, so there are some books to choose from…).
  2.  I still find powerful and inspirational.

Zanele Muholi

When a couple of friends and I were visiting Les Rencontres d’Arles last Summer, the South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi was one of the people featured in the show “Systematically Open”. Besides what I learned in the show room, I don’t know much about her work (yet). But am eager to learn and see what I can find.

However, I might have some issues finding a lot of literature on her, since she’s pretty new (i.e. not old nor dead) on the art scene. But because of her loud activism work, she might have managed to capture the interest of people outside “the normal art scene” as well.

Possible subjects for further exploration:

  • Zanele Muholi’s life and works
  • South African art and photography (post-apartheid?)
  • The lgbtqia+ art scene (global, local and South African)

As this is just a preliminary exercise (that I am doing just for fun), I will probably put a bit less effort/time into this than I normally would.

Before I get started, just a quick note (to self) on sources and literature:

The OCA learning resources, as found in the study guide, are very clear on their prefered types of literature/source materials. They want students to get away from their computers and into the “real world” of books and exhibitions. I do agree with this, by the way. Nonetheless, these days a lot of books and academic journals are published online. AND since I’ve  access to them through my current student status at the University of Oslo (yes, I juggle a lot of responsibilities, and am at my happiest doing this) I’ll happily exploit this while I can.

Turns out finding articles on Zanele Muholi’s life and works wasn’t hard at all.

Screenshot from the University Liberary Database, showing results concerning Zanele Muholi
Screenshot from the University Liberary’s Database

I even found a book: Democracy at Home in South Africa: Family Fictions and Transitional Culture by Kerry Bystrom (2016). Go me!

A Short Intro to Zanele Muholi’s Life and Works

Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi township in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in 1972. She been taking pictures as an act of resistance against the notion that only men within the Zulu nation could wield a camera. She wanted the opportunity of recording her own life. Her first solo exhibition was named “Visual Sexuality” in 2004, and she has since had plentiful of successful solo shows in South Africa and elsewhere (Corey, 2016).

I am a visual activist. I take photographs. The kind of work I do is on queer politics, gender politics and politics of race.

– Zanele Muholi in  Zanele Muholi, Visual Activist (Wright, 2013).

In the interview with Íde Cory (2016) she states that recording black queer history, a history that is to a large extent unknown in her own country,  let alone the African continent,  is her main reasons for doing her work. Marginalized people writing their stories, getting visual proves that they do exist and matter.

Working in Her Own Community; Photographing Participants, Not Models or Subjects.

For Muholi it’s important to emphasise that she’s working with other participants in her projects. People who have taken time out of their lives in order to be a part of the work. In Faces and Phases, she has very much worked within her own community. In an almost “snowball-method”-way of getting more people to be in front of the camera. What started out as photographing friends and ex-girlfriends, soon became pictures of ex’s exes’ friends and the like (Yale Art Gallery, 2014). They are people first. People who know each other. A community,  that also are sharing  a given set of marginalized identities.

I don’t work alone, I work with people. I am very open to collaborations.

 – Muholi in Yale Art Gallery (2014)


As a part of her community work she founded Inkanyiso in 2009. Inkanyiso is a media/art collective and civil society organization that focuses on documenting the lives queer and lesbian people in writing as well as visual images (Corey, 2016).

It’s important that people get to voice their own stories, even when their words would seem meaningless to the “grammar police”.

These days a lot of time is used on documenting the effects of hate crimes; corrective rape (Muholi, 2004), and the ongoing murders of lesbian women in South Africa.

Somnyama Ngonyama – Self Portraits

Somnyama Ngonyama means “Hail the Dark Lioness” in Zulu. It is a series of self-portrait where Muholi draws upon the visual history of representing black and african people (esp. women) in art, cultural studies and the media.

Quoting Jenna Worthham (2015):

Her self-­portraits explode stereotypes of African women while evoking them, implicating the viewers for summoning those clichés as they gaze upon her skin. What does it mean to see Muholi’s face surrounded by clothespins and see a headdress? Where have you seen these images before? And who took them?

The images knocked me off my feet when I first saw them in July. The emotional pain in some of the portraits, the utterly assertiveness in others. All playing with notions of colonial stereotypes, Orientalism and the gaze of the other.

And of course, the black and white prints were absolutely gorgeous by themselves.

Final Thoughts

South Africa is one of those countries I know that I know very little about. Over the years I’ve  had quite a few professors who’ve done extensive field works in urban South Africa; In Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. I’ve seen their images, heard their stories and know their research.

I still feel like I know next to nothing about the country. This is of course just a feeling of mine, and not the whole picture. But I am skimming unfamiliar territory. And learning lots of new stuffs.

In many ways it was really hard for me to do this excercise. When I do any kind of research I like to immerse myself with as much information as possible, and then use time and patience as my primary tools of figuring it all out. Here, I took on this task as a thing to do in order to do other things. Which meant that even though I was highly motivated for learning, I had to keep in mind that the end result wasn’t a 5000 words essay. Keep it simple. Keep it safe. I can always come back to these subjects 🙂

On the bright side, I now know the work of yet an other photographer. One of the most important lessons learned is that exhibitions happen in Oslo ALL THE TIME, and that I most often forget/don’t the time to check them out. Muholi was here in June (!). And I missed out on her show. That won’t happen again.

Muholi is an artist who cares deeply about the society she’s living in. An activist who challenges the viewers on subject matters I am mostly used to seeing in the work of (pure) documentary photographers. “Concerned Photography” is not only for the seasoned photojournalist. There is more than one way of combining camera and social justice work.

There’s some hope for the rest of us as well. For which I am truly grateful.

Further Reading:

Bystrom, K., 2016. Democracy at Home in South Africa Family Fictions and Transitional Culture, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan US.
Corley, Í., 2016. An Interview with Zanele Muholi. Wasafiri, 31(1), pp.22–29.
Curtis, E., 2012. Faces and Phases: Portraits from South Africa’s Lesbian Community. The New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/faces-and-phases-portraits-from-south-africas-lesbian-community [Accessed September 18, 2016].
Inkanyiso, 2006. Inkanyiso – About us. Inkanyiso.org. Available at: https://inkanyiso.org/about/ [Accessed September 17, 2016].
Les Recontres de la Photographie, 2016. Arles 2016 – Les Recontres de la Photographie 47th ed., Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône: Actes Sud.
Muholi, Z., 2004. Thinking through Lesbian Rape . Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, (61), pp.116–125. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4066614 [Accessed September 16, 2016].
Wortham, J., 2015. Look Again. The New York Times Magazine, p.62(L). Available at: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=litrc&sw=w&u=oslo&v=2.1&it=r&id=gale|a431236204&asid=68f41fbb48a0c0de0ff25c96df682c78 [Accessed 2016].
Wright, K.F., 2013. Zanele Muholi, Visual Activist, Human Rights Watch. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/11/24/south-africa-video-gender-violence [Accessed September 13, 2016].
Yale Art Gallery, 2014. Artist Talk, Zanele Muholi with Lebo Mashifane, Yale Art Gallery. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryqnt-quzsa [Accessed September 17, 2016].

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