‘Can I Own My Own Voice?’: Watch Zanele Muholi Photograph LGBTQI South Africans to Combat Silencing and Stigma

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

Production still from the "Johannesburg" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 9. © Art21, Inc. 2018.

“Can I own my voice? Can I own me? Because my mother never had an opportunity to own her own voice until she died.”

These questions posed by South African artist Zanele Muholi are at the core of their ongoing photographic projects that give a visual platform to marginalized LGBTQI people in South Africa. 

In a new exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston titled “Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance,” the artist’s striking black-and-white self-portraits and images of women in their native South Africa help to further an acceptance of Blackness and queerness in all its forms. The show brings together portraits from series like “Brave Beauties,” documenting the artist’s “chosen family,” with Muholi’s new body of colorful paintings created during the pandemic.

Tate visitors pose in front of a self portrait photograph from an ongoing series entitled "Somnyama Ngonyama" by South African visual activist Zanele Muholi during a press view of an exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery in London on November 3, 2020. (Photo by HOLLIE ADAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

Tate visitors pose in front of a self portrait photograph from an ongoing series entitled “Somnyama Ngonyama” by South African visual activist Zanele Muholi during a press view of an exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery in London on November 3, 2020. Photo by HOLLIE ADAMS/AFP via Getty Images.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s “Art in the Twenty-First Century” series, Muholi traveled around Johannesburg and Cape Town documenting members of the LGBTQI community who face violence and social stigma.

I photograph different LGBTI individuals, risking my life, challenging the myth that says being gay, being trans is un-African,” Muholi said. 

The artist stresses the importance of visual documents, creating an archive of survivors who persist, despite the challenges they face. “You can’t say people have a right to exist without visuals that are produced by us on us,” Muholi said. “A simple image of a queer being in space, that’s political.”

 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s “Art in the Twenty-First Century” series, below. “Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance” is on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from February 10 through May 8, 2022.

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 all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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