Arts + Culture

Zanele Muholi on Second Chances and ‘Visual Activism’

We catch up with South Africa's Zanele Muholi, where she touches on her latest work and using a camera lens as a tool for activism.

This feature is in conjunction with our inaugural list—“OkayAfrica’s 100 Women”—where we take a look at the women making an impact on the African continent and in the diaspora.


Check out the biggest names in culture to young up-and-comers in "OkayAfrica's 100 Women" list here.

South Africa’s formidable visual artist, artivist and community organizer, Zanele Muholi, is letting the world in on life in South Africa with powerful photography created to educate, inspire and heal.

Muholi is making waves across the global with thought-provoking photographs, some of which are self-portraits, and is renowned for humanizing South Africa’s black queer community, Faces and Phases, who are not always celebrated for being themselves. She photographed a reported 200 lesbians for the Faces and Phases project in part to document members of the community and as a response to the wave of homophobia in South Africa.

“Visual activism” is her calling and Muholi is doing it with creative flair and skill. The #OKAY100WOMEN honoree reflected about her life and work so far, she is participating in the 2017 Art Basel in Hong Kong.

Via Zanele Muholi

Josephine Opar for OkayAfrica: Can you tell us the impetus of the work that you exhibited at the Cape Town Art Fair—Somnyama Ngonyama?

Zanele Muholi: The exhibited work is about the state of economy in South Africa. Foreign currency vs ZAR. It could also be interpreted as ilobolo (dowry) as a means of exchange between families, before a woman gets married.

What are you thankful for?

I am thankful for my life and being given a second chance. In December 2016, I had a major operation and survived that. I’m also grateful for the love I received from close friends and family members.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Never procrastinate and continue to ­­produce (visual) work. Even when times are hard, keep going until you reach your goals.

In what ways can a camera lens be used as a tool for activism?

There is so much going on in the world that needs to be said, but many voices are silenced.

If we can’t write or theorize those realities, then we should visualize our lives in ways that suit us for our own articulation. Photography gives us that opportunity to visualize harsh realities that violate human rights. We are able to document and distribute pictures widely, for the world to see.

What brings you joy in your work?

Seeing the end product of my work exhibited in various places locally and abroad, meaning we are reaching out to many audiences. Looking at how this same work is used by educators and scholars for research and education. Through photography, I get to establish and maintain relationships with participants in my work.

Arts + Culture
Samuel Fosso, Self Portrait, 1977. International Center of Photography, Purchase, with fundsprovided by the ICP Aquisitions Committee, 2004 (19.2004) © Samuel Fosso, Courtesy JMPatras/Paris

These Portraits by African Photographers Reveal the Power In Self-Presentation

We take a tour through the International Center for Photography's "Your Mirror: Portraits from the ICP Collection", which features influential works from Malick Sidibé, Zanele Muholi, Samuel Fosso and more.

The eyes of the young woman in Zanele Muholi's "Anele, 'Anza' Khaba," look as if they're staring directly into your soul. With her arms folded against her chest, it seems she might be putting a guard up or that they might simply be trying to look cool for the camera. With portraiture especially, how far you decide to read into something is up to you, as often, the line between a subject's desire for self-presentation and what the photographer themselves seeks to convey, isn't always clear. These are the types of observations that the "Your Mirror: Portraits from the ICP Collection", sparked in my mind as I strolled through the space with its Director of Exhibitions and Collections, Erin Barnett.

"You learn a lot about yourself and about other people by looking at portraits, but not always what you think you know," she says. We also learn a lot about the person behind the lens. The ICP's exhibit features works from photographers from across the globe, with the mission of surveying "the nuanced ways people present themselves for the camera, how and by whom they are represented, and who is deemed worthy of commemoration." The works of four prominent African photographers are included in the exhibition: the Malian icon Malick Sidibé, Cameroon's Samuel Fosso, along with South African photographers Zanele Muholi, and Lolo Veleko. Their photographs, the settings, and who they choose to document, give us a glimpse into their vision as much as it does the subjects in their photographs (which for Samuel Fosso, in this case, is himself.)

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Our guide to Blackness at this year's fair.

It's that time of year again. Art Basel is bringing its magic back to Miami. The annual art fair that showcases modern and contemporary art, is set to have more than 4,000 artists displaying work across all mediums. The Miami iteration of the week-long fair has become a space for artists, galleries, collectors and countless art lovers to connect, be inspired and party for the last 16 years.

Here are some Black art must-sees during Art Basel:

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J Hus. Photo: CROWNS & OWLS. Courtesy of Epic Records.

The 12 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Rema, J Hus, YoungstaCPT, Thutmose, N'veigh and more.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our Best Music of the Week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow our SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS WEEK playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Check out all of OkayAfrica's new playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

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Miss South Africa Wants Men to Write Love Letters to Women to Fight Against Gender-Based Violence

Unfortunately, there's nothing stopping abusive men from writing these love letters too.

South Africa's newly crowned Miss SA Zozibini "Zozi" Tunzi has launched a "HeForShe" campaign which aims to tackle the alarming rates of femicide and gender-based violence in the country. The campaign, which is in partnership with the South African arm of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), wants South African men to step up and join the collective fight against abuse. However, the campaign has been criticized by many because of the way in which it wants men to step—by writing love letters to women. The campaign has divided South Africans, particularly those on social media.

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