“I have to self-define before I allow other people to define me.”


When you hear the word beauty what do you think of? We have been conditioned to think that the mainstream notion of beauty is formal, meaning the physical forms and formulas that average out to what each culture deems beautiful. But I think most of you also think about internal beauty, beauty of intention, beauty of care and the beauty of generosity at the mention of the word. In experiencing the photography of South African artist Zanele Muholi we get to experience beauty that crosses through our layers, from external to deeply internal.



Zanele is more than a photographer, she is a visual activist. Her dedication is to increase the visibility of black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people. Her message is important for the progress of equality and to nurture perspectives away from those of the past. Her means of communication is to document the African queer community, without negativity or focusing on the widespread violence, focussing on portraying the community as individuals.

Zanele is primarily known for her self-portraits, in which she explores identity through creations made of materials that evoke narratives underlying the individual histories of black women in South Africa.


“Self-portraiture was  a way in which I wanted to respond to racism and gender, using materials that confine a person or  force one to look at oneself in a different way,” 



Born in July of 1972, Zanele grew up during apartheid. During this time photography was not a part of daily life and saw personal histories disappearing or misrepresented because they were not documented. With her art, she uses the power of documentation to establish the beauty and power of self-truth, personal truth and record this for the future. 

“Photography is evidence of existence, of being, of present-ness.”



“We’re told that in order to look good you need to fix your hair and lighten your skin; you need to do all these artificial things that make you look different – the whole thing transforms you. I’m going back to a space where we don’t necessarily have to  go through that, and not everybody subscribes to that.”

The socio-political context of each moment of inspiration informs which props and materials she chooses. These everyday objects become historically loaded with her meaningful assemblages creating unnamed characters of herself.

“Material speaks with the body as a whole, and it defines you in different ways. A headscarf around [the] hair, for example, is a confirmation that this is a female person who has to respect her elders, in-laws or husband, which has to do with the traditions of our different African tribes,” 



“We’re at the yellow bone age of imagery, which says that it’s OK for black-skinned bodies to lighten the skin, but that doesn’t speak to the future. I darken my skin as a way to reclaim my own because I have to self-define before I allow other people to define me. For me, this is like loving the self, and remembering ‘me’, because the possibility of being myself in a mainstream magazine is slim, either because of my sexuality or the way I project myself, so I had to create my own visual history.”



Zanele Muholi grew up in Umlazi, Durban, the third-largest township in South Africa. She started her studies at the Photo Workshop in Newtown Johannesburg, then went on to receive a Master in Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto.

In addition to photography, Zanele has founded multiple organizations. In 2002 she founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) which provides a safe space for women to meet and organize against the realities of ‘corrective rape’, assault, and HIV/AIDS. In 2009 she founded Inkanyiso, an organization nurturing visual activism through visual art and media advocacy for and on behalf of the LGBT community. Their mantra is inspiring to all of us:
“Produce. Educate. Disseminate.”


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