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Issue 227

Zanele Muholi on Photography as Social Practice

Jonathan Carver Moore speaks to the artist about building Black queer communities through art

BY Jonathan Carver Moore AND Zanele Muholi in Features , Interviews | 01 JUN 22

Jonathan Carver Moore I want to start off by asking you what life is like right now in Cape Town, where you live and work?

Zanele Muholi Life is full of challenges. I’m drained in this moment. But I invited this onto myself. I live next to the ocean, and morning walks by the beach keep me sane. I like the beauty of water and the colour of the waves. That's what keeps me going, the smell and sounds of the sea of Cape Town. And if I don’t walk, I lose it. But I’m surrounded by people that I like and love. And I’m doing important work – hectically – with several students that I am sponsoring to better their education or to advance their skills in photography, because I don’t want to be one of the only known Black, queer photographers in South Africa.

Zanele Muholi, Qiniso, The Sails, Durban, 2019, gelatin silver print. Courtesy: the artist; Yancey Richardson, New York; and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

As art practitioners, we can encourage or support those who want to become the next generation of artists. So, I’m doing my philanthropy work. Giving to and being with the community is what keeps me sane in this country that is plagued by crime and where the youth are destitute. I think we, as artists, could make a difference, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m currently supporting 15 young artists financially, while also providing them with accommodation and equipment. I also work with ten students at the Kings Harvest Academy and six studying at the Market Photo Workshop. So far, I’ve supported more than 42 photography students and others, who are all doing very well with their projects.

JCM Do you consider your work – photography, painting, sculpture – a form of resistance?

ZM All the time. All that is Black is substance. My work is quite political. I don’t just produce work for the sake of producing work. It has a lot to do with visibility, which bugs me all the time when I don’t see images of us [Black queer folks] in domestic interiors. When I see billboard ads selling products, I think of how much we blindly consume. So, resistance is the key word.

Zanele Muholi, Thathu I, The Sails, Durban, 2019, gelatin silver print. Courtesy: the artist; Yancey Richardson, New York; and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

And I cannot bear not to speak about it; whatever we do should not go unnoticed because, as queer beings, there’s so much wealth that we share with the world. So much beauty. All of those things have to do with resistance, and that is present in my work.

JCM How do you think being Black adds to that, on top of being queer?

ZM It’s harsh in such a way that survival becomes something else. It becomes more about testimonies of survival. Being queer, being Black, being female-bodied is multilayered. And it is painful. It is stressful. It is risky. It compels me to work extra hard and become that voice for many who cannot speak for themselves. Oftentimes it hurts, because not everyone lives in your head – but still, you cannot dare give up. This whole thing is about visibility, respect, recognition and survival, which demands a high level of sanity.

Zanele Muholi, Zazi II, ISGM, Boston, 2019, gelatin silver print. Courtesy: the artist; Yancey Richardson, New York; and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

JCM How important is it for you to own your voice? And how do you see that becoming a reality for others who may be afraid to step out and be themselves? To be Black, queer, female-bodied in a space where they’re not welcomed? What would you say to those people?

ZM We need to make sure that we share knowledge as much as possible. Let our people be skilled. Let our people be educated. Let us share resources for them to find that voice within, because without education, without skills, weakness takes over. There are several under-resourced queer communities in South Africa. It will mean that there are a few people whose lives are denied justice, simply because they did not know how to articulate themselves. But if we have knowledge or information, we’ll be able to better challenge those who refuse us existence in spaces that we are supposedly not fit to occupy.

Zanele Muholi, Zimpaphe l, Parktown, 2019, gelatin silver print. Courtesy: the artist; Yancey Richardson, New York; and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

JCM:Let me ask you about your most recent work: the paintings that you did throughout the pandemic, such as Cwephesha or Ndondoloza [both 2021]. It’s not what people are used to seeing you create. What was the reason for this shift from photography to painting?

ZM Painting takes longer and there’s an excruciating pain that comes with it that takes something out of you, until you take something from it, too. I can’t seem to destabilize it, somehow. Painting is painful, also for the fact that you might lose that work at some stage because someone will own it or appreciate it or consume it somehow. I say that with respect to those who collect. There’s something with a photograph that is untouchable, yet so visible. It’s so beautiful, but ugly and unnerving at the same time. And yet, even if it’s not a war photograph as such, there’s something so violent about photographs. So, I look at these images and try to find a narrative for them, because they’ve got so much to do with the sixth sense, the photos that touch me, but also because there’s a dark feeling about them. Beyond these images being black, there’s something that I cannot explain.

Zanele Muholi, MuMu XIX, London, 2019, gelatin silver print. Courtesy: the artist; Yancey Richardson, New York; and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

JCM What kind of future do you see for yourself and the community that you’ve built in South Africa?

ZM I want to have the Muholi Art Institute, where I will teach people about possibilities. So, I’ll have a school. I have already designed a programme for teaching art, based on experience. I want people to be exposed, to get better exposure. I don’t like to see queer artists suffer because of who they are, because the art world is cruel. It’s not as easy and glossy as it seems in art magazines or on television.

This is not to generalize; I’m speaking from experience. And it saddens me to think how depressed some artists are and how they can’t get the exposure they deserve, simply because of prejudice and censorship. So, before the year ends, we’ll be launching Muholi Art Institute, just to give a space and a chance to those who feel like me. It’s possible.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 227 with the headline ‘Black Substance’, as part of a special series titled ‘Photography Now’.

Main image: Zanele Muholi, Julile I, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2016, gelatin silver print. Courtesy: the artist; Yancey Richardson, New York; and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

Jonathan Carver Moore is editor of the digital art journal, ARTUCATED. He is also the Director of Donor Relations, Partnerships & Programming at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, USA.

Zanele Muholi is a visual activist and photographer. They are the recipient of the 2021 Spectrum International Prize for Photography. Their survey exhibition is on view at Tate Modern, London, UK, until 31 May. They live in Durban, South Africa.