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The Queer Dark Lioness

In 2003, a black, queer, non-binary activist (goes by the pronouns they/them/their) embarked on a journey- a journey which was their attempt to remedy black queer invisibility in South Africa. This person was Zanele Muholi. While many would call Muholi an artist, not an activist, Muholi calls themselves a ‘visual activist’ instead of an artist. To them, art is not just about aesthetics- it is a means to convey messages about social empowerment and visibility. They believe in cultural activism, and in art that educates, empowers and confronts a multitude of issues in the social sphere. In 2006, Muholi started a photo series titled ‘Faces and Phases’, in which they captured portraits of lesbian women and trans people of colour, as a means to give representation to community that was highly underrepresented in South Africa. This photo series, along with Muholi’s several others, is aimed at debunking the common rhetoric that homosexuality is ‘un-African’.

In 2006, same sex marriage was legalised in South Africa, however, the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa is still oppressed- they still suffer from extreme levels of violence and discrimination, and more than anything, they are still treated like ‘the Other’. One might ask, what does Muholi’s photo series do? How does it speak out for the rights of this community if it doesn’t tell each and every one of their stories but instead only shows their portraits? The answer to that is simple- Muholi’s work gives this often marginalised section of society representation. Their work becomes an archive, a space in visual history for these people whose narratives have always been ignored.

Muholi’s work is also a statement on racism. How, you may ask? It lies in something so simple, that one may not even stop to think about it. The early pioneers of photography were white. They never even considered how they could capture the beauty of dark skin with the same richness and depth that they captured white tones with. “I am reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other,” Muholi has written. With their raw monochrome portraits, the artist-cum-activist makes a very raw statement on ‘black beauty’. Their work is also an expression of African culture, shown by Muholi’s use of found objects to create the accessories and headgear commonly worn by the indigenous people of South Africa. These accessories appear often in the artist’s self portrait series, ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ - ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’.

My first interaction with Zanele Muholi’s work was in 2019, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale in March 2019. I still remember walking into the gallery space and being greeted by the raw, strong and piercing portraits that lined the walls. When I looked at Muholi’s portraits, the first thing that struck me about them was that while they were bold and confrontational, they were equally tender and intimate. Each portrait blatantly addressed racial issues, but at the same time were fragile stories of the LGBTQIA+ community that had never been voiced. Muholi’s portrait photographs stuck with me long after I left the gallery. The deeply saturated dark tones in the portrait, further intensified by presenting the images in a black and white monochrome, stayed imprinted on my eyes long after I looked away.

Thinking back on Muholi’s photo series, it made me realise how artists sometimes use such simple means to drive home their message. Muholi’s portraits have always been candid, with rarely any embellishments, but they yet have such a tenacious hold on any viewer. Since 2003, more than 300 faces have sat before this artist’s lens. Zanele Muholi has given a voice to over 300 oppressed gay, queer, non-binary, trans people of colour, a voice that is silent, but louder than ever heard before.

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