The South African photographer places herself centre stage in Hail the Dark Lioness, drawing on experiences of homophobia and hate crimes that impact her own community.

The South African photographer places herself centre stage in Hail the Dark Lioness, drawing on experiences of homophobia and hate crimes that impact her own community.

Photography came to me at a point in my life when things were really rough. I was frustrated, I needed therapy. I had some friends who said to me, “Just try this, you’ll feel better.” So I used photography to heal the person in me, to heal the wounded soul that couldn’t be fixed by a shrink or anybody else.

In photography, I found a special medium that really helped articulate issues that tormented me. I’m able to make photographs with people who might have experienced their own personal pain, who have their own journeys, who are seeking a community in which to speak.

I call myself a visual activist. That means taking action: you see something, you don’t complain, but you do something to make a difference. You want to make sure that the voices of people like you are present, that you are contributing towards a history that speaks to you and many other individuals whose voices are unheard.

Sibusiso, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town /Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Sibusiso, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town /Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

 

You want to make sure that our lives, especially black lives, are part of South African history. I can’t speak of a South African constitution, for example, without including the contributions of black LGBTQIA people. By speaking loud and taking action, I have set the precedents; I have created an archive that never existed in this country before. Sharing my work has opened up a new dialogue, spoken from an insider’s point of view: living and taking risks alongside my peers, activists and my community.

We shouldn’t only exist in mainstream consciousness because one of us is violated, one of us is raped or one of us is murdered. Listen to us, recognise us, respect us. This is why I have been recording people’s stories and documenting funerals, protests and court cases around the country that affect LGBTQIA people.

Five years ago, in April 2012, the Cape Town apartment in which I lived was ransacked. The most expensive camera I had at that time wasn’t stolen. But they took everything that contained information, like external hard drives where I had recorded hate crimes. I felt like I was being sabotaged, that my life was not safe anymore. I felt so violated.

Julile I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Julile I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

 

I was forced to leave Cape Town and went back to Johannesburg. The experience damaged me in so many ways and I still haven’t healed. You’re constantly in danger, you have to be super careful. It was a wake-up call for me.

It didn’t stop me approaching the very same subject matter I have been dealing with for more than 10 years now. But there was a time when I kept myself away from busy spaces because I needed to reflect and connect with myself. I shifted my focus away from painful events – I shot less funerals, even though they needed to be photographed – so that I could deal with the self. I began to capture self-portraits on a timely basis.

Looking at your likeness, at the self, through portraiture is a reminder that you exist. Self-love is very important. Confronting all your flaws and all that makes you feel uneasy is necessary because, as photographers, as visual activists, we get carried away. We tend to forget about who we are and get burned out, simply because we never give ourselves time to reflect. People get tired, end up dying from chronic illnesses and then people forget that we ever existed.

Bester I, Mayotte, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/ Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Bester I, Mayotte, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/ Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

 

For once, I got to be with myself and say, “Hello, me. Hi Zanele, where are you?” That just excited me. I remembered that I’m alive, in a way. Creating the self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness has given me a good opportunity to be in love with me again, which might have got forgotten along the way.

But it’s also painful, because many of the images deal with important moments in South African history. I reference events that black men and women have gone through, such as the Women’s March on Pretoria in 1956, when thousands of women from different backgrounds demonstrated against the repressive apartheid pass laws, which severely restricted their movements. I remember those who have shaped my life in many ways, and the lessons I’ve learned, as I look through myself to see them.

The work I’m doing is autobiographical. I don’t use the term ‘subject’ in my visual language. I am my own participant in all my work, which means connecting and confronting. It means declaring the importance of self-representation amid extreme levels of violence and racism in South Africa and beyond our borders. It’s a way of teaching me – or us, as black people – to see ourselves as worthy humans when we are told that we are nothing.

Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town /Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016
© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town /Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Hlonipha, Cassilhaus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Hlonipha, Cassilhaus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Thulani II, Parktown, 2015 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, CapeTown / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Thulani II, Parktown, 2015
© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, CapeTown / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

This article appears in Huck 62 – The Documentary Photography Special V. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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