Artist Zanele Muholi brings the African lesbian experience to UW


What’s more incredible than visual, activist art about black lesbian life in South Africa? Only that the artist, Zanele Muholi, is in Seattle this week showing off her new documentary, Difficult Love.

I have a major crush on South African photographer Zanele Muholi.

She’s spending this week at the UW as a guest of the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies Department (invited by Dr. Amanda Swarr as a Stice Feminist Scholar for Social Justice).

There are plenty of reasons to crush on Muholi. One is the powerful, positive and downright beautiful portraits within her projects.

Another is her work as a visual activist. In her artist statement from one of my favorite projects of hers, Faces and Phases I, she says she wants to “ensure that there is black lesbian visibility, to showcase our existence and resistance in this democratic society, to present a positive imagery of black lesbians.”

"Skye Chirape, Brighton, United Kingdom, 2010" from Zanele Muholi's Faces and Phases exhibit.
“Skye Chirape, Brighton, United Kingdom, 2010” from Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases exhibit. (Photo courtesy of

South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006 and has the one of the most progressive constitutions in the world for LGBTQ communities. It includes access to partner’s pension, inheritance, and other benefits

“You have all these rights on paper,” Muholi says, “but what about the [reflective] image, the visual, of these rights on your daily life?”

She says these rights are far from being manifest in every day life.

South Africa is often called the “rape capital of the world,” where 1 in 3 women are raped and 41% of all rape reported is of children and babies.

Queer women are no exception in these statistics–perhaps the opposite. Lesbians in South Africa are often targets of corrective/curative rape, which is supposed to cure them from their deviance.

In 2011 the BBC reported that as many as 10 lesbians a week are raped in Cape Town alone.

Muholi’s work has made lesbians in South Africa visible to the mainstream. The group has long been pushed underground by negative stereotypes and violence. She argues that her work and that of those in her images stand in defiance of this systematic eradication by leaving behind visual evidence of their existence.

Muholi states that her activism “comes from the space of questions” and I would say it also represents an innate, intimate desire for life.

I could write a lot more about Muholi, the activist, the artist, the person and her work. But I think you should come witness her for yourself…so we can crush on her together.

Zanele Muholi’s public appearances on the UW Campus are:

Tuesday, January 29, 2013, 7:00 pm, Kane Hall 225 Join us for a public interview with Zanele Muholi about her art and activism conducted by Amanda Swarr, Associate Professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. Her career as a photographer, filmmaker, and human rights activist will be addressed in this rare opportunity for the UW community.

Difficult Love: Film Screening And Discussion With The Filmmaker Wednesday, January 30, 2013, 6:00 pm, Allen Auditorium in Allen Library Difficult Love (2010), commissioned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, has won awards at film festivals in Amsterdam, London, Chicago, Spain, Sweden and Italy. This groundbreaking and personal documentary explores the nuances of South African lesbians’ lives.


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