‘I Want to Be Unplugged’: Watch Artist Zanele Muholi Take Their Studio on the Road to Photograph Trans Women in South Africa

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Zanele Muholi at work in a production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Zanele Muholi: Mobile Studios." © Art21, Inc. 2019.

The South African-born artist Zanele Muholi is not a fan of boundaries. As a self-proclaimed “visual activist,” Muholi, who uses the pronoun “they,” refuses to be pigeonholed by sexual orientation, gender, or profession, though all of those things are integral aspects of Muholi’s identity.

Britain’s Tate Modern museum was planning to open a major survey of Muholi’s work in late April, bringing more than 260 photographs together in a sweeping overview of their career. Unfortunately, it seems that lockdown is one of the few things that can derail Muholi’s roving spirit. (The show is currently on hold until the museum reopens at a yet to be determined date.)

In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the “Extended Play” series, Muholi explained what prompted their “mobile studio initiative,” which involves traveling around to various communities to reach a wider range of photographic subjects. “We are citizens of this country, which is democratic,” Muholi says in the video, “Any space is possible space… I don’t want to be in any studio. I want to be unplugged.”

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Zanele Muholi: Mobile Studios.” © Art21, Inc. 2019.

As a result, the artist opted to travel around South Africa, making personal connections with members of the vast LGBTI community there, bringing creativity and a celebration of diversity to every photo shoot. In this video, Muholi is seen at work on the “Brave Beauties” series, capturing portraits of trans women who have historically been discriminated against all around the world.

When the photos, which will be included at the Tate show, go on view at Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, Muholi invites the participants into the gallery to write directly on the walls. “Creating the activist wall, it’s a way in which we destabilize the peaceful imagery of the gallery setting” Muholi says, explaining that giving these women the agency to infiltrate the white-walled gallery is empowering, “it seems as if there’s no agency…but they have their own personal stories to tell.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. “Zanele Muholi” at Tate Modern is on hold indefinitely, more information can be found on the website.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch episodes of other series like “New York Close Up” and “Extended Play” and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.