The extraordinary black and white photography of visual activist, Zanele Muholi seized our imagination with the beauty of its execution and its courageous centering of South Africa's Black LGBTQI community despite rampant homophobia and violence targeted against them. Though her work has an intentional aesthetic potency, she doesn't consider herself an artist, but someone who produces art to advance a political agenda— confronting the intersectional politics of queerness, gender and race.
We are enamored. Muholi's work exemplifies Complete Unknown's deeply held value of inclusion. We relish variety across all areas of human existence and reject the many isms endemic in society: racism, sexism, ageism, classism as well as religious intolerance and homophobia. By training the camera on herself, Muholi, in her recent series of self-portraiture, Somnyama Ngonyama, translated "Hail, the Dark Lioness" in Zulu, challenges us, with her direct gaze, to see and dismantle these social ills. She inserts the black body–her own–boldly into frame and manipulates lighting and contrast to darken her deep brown skin into an arresting, saturated blackness. Adorning herself with disparate objects, from inverted travel pillows in a serpentine coil around her neck like a ruff to a chandelier necklace and diadem crafted of clothespins in homage to her late mother, a domestic worker, she makes trenchant observations about race, class, and status.
Radicalized in the early aughts, she began photographing the women of her community, black lesbians othered into society's margins, and perpetually threatened with hate crimes–despite the fact that South Africa was the first African nation to legalize same-sex marriage in November 2006. She captured vibrant life and tragic death, documenting the funerals of the brutally murdered. Many of her subjects are survivors of the barbaric practice of so-called "corrective rape," enacted to "cure" women of homosexuality. The images are defiant and tender; revealing a strength and intimacy that disrupts heteronormative expectation– loving a subversive act.
She is an archivist, “marking, mapping, and preserving an often invisible community for posterity," she has said. Having created Inkanyiso (Zulu for "the one who brings light") as a communal platform to elevate marginalized black queer voices that courageously exist, persist and resist under threat of danger, she amplifies those voices, taking her "crew" with her as her work has brought her international recognition and travel. We appreciate her commitment to her merry band of 20+ queer artmakers.
It is tremendously gratifying when a group of people collaborate with the goal to create work of lasting value. We at Complete Unknown hold our artisans in the highest regard. Working in concert with our vision and commitment to artisanship, they craft goods of the highest quality, and we play an integral role in reviving a dormant industry.
Zanele Muholi shares our passion for bold ideas, commitment to craft, and ethical practices. We applaud her mission to shift perceptions, changing the prevailing limited narrative to one of inclusion.
Black & White Images: Zanele Muholi