Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases at the Brooklyn Museum

Images above: ©Zanele Muholi, (left image) Nokuthula Dhladhla, Berea, Johannesburg, 2007; (right image) Refilwe Mahlaba, Thokoza, Johannesburg, 2010. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. 

Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases (part of the larger exhibition Isibonelo/Evidence) is on display May 1 – November 1 at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The gelatin silver photographs, taken 2006-2014, feature portraits of the black lesbian and transgender communities of South Africa and show the many different expressions of identities within a group that is constantly defined by stereotypes.

zanele 3Images above: ©Zanele Muholi, (left image) Mbali Zulu, KwaThema, Springs, Johannesburg, 2010; (right image) Lesedi Modise Mafikeng North West 2010. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.



            “They tell me that they will kill me, they will rape me and after raping me I will become a girl. I will become a straight girl.”

The black and white portraits are accompanied by personal testimonials from the community that bares witness to horrific crimes and abuse. Muholi has also created a timeline documenting hate crimes against LGBTI people in South Africa. The combination of the black and white portraits with the heart-felt testimonials and the factual timeline creates a strong impact that doesn’t leave any viewer untouched.

Due to the human rights advances that contributed to the ending of apartheid in 1994, South Africa’s constitution was first in the world to abolish discrimination based on sexual orientation. Despite this the country is facing negative legal and social status for LGBTI people and homophobic violence including murder and corrective rape as a result of colonialism, religious customs and consequences of apartheid.

Muholi describes herself as a visual activist and she is indeed using her portraits and documentation to create awareness of a problem, an awareness that is so strong that the audience can’t ignore it. She has understood the importance of using images to make an issue real and personal as opposed to abstract and theoretical.

zanele 2Images above: ©Zanele Muholi, (left image) Lesego Masilela Daveyton Johannesburg 2013; (right image) Linda Myataza, NY147 Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011_8223. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.


By documenting both the horrendous crimes against LGBTI people but also portraying the different identities of members of the community, Muholi is creating a visual historic archive of a group that is marginalized and often ignored. The exhibition vocalizes a demand for respect but is not only a protest against violence but also a way of giving equal attention to all people of a society. The impact of the exhibition travels broader than just South Africa and highlights an issue that is sadly in one way or another present in every society in the world.

by Helena Calmfors