Artists We Love: Zanele Muholi

WORDS Palesa Kgasane IMAGES Supplied by Tate via Stevenson

Featuring over 260 photographs, the exhibition zooms in on two decades of work in which Zanele documents themselves and lives of their fellow LGBTQI community. This is a created world where identity, and the quest to give a voice to the voiceless, take centre stage.

One of the most prolific contemporary South African artists, Zanele is an LGBTQI activist who is part of a generation whose survival allows many new artists to tell their stories today. “Photography has allowed me to express myself in a way that I would not have been able to had I used another medium,” says Zanele. “I knew that something important had to happen with my work, but I didn’t know it would end up in places like the Tate or museums around the world.”

Each body of work that Zanele has created has its place in the past and present, possibly the future. Why? Because it is open and unending, a space where they constantly find themselves going back to continue telling their  story and that of others. 

This process is one of importance because it has allowed Zanele to uplift the LGBTQI community. “My work is for everyone, it could be a teacher, it could be a mother whose child is queer and they want a reference point to show them that they are not alone, and, it could be for LGBTI people themselves, to understand their worthiness,” they say.

While they position their work as being for everyone, some of Zanele’s photographs are deeply confrontational – perhaps uncomfortable for some – as they are situated at the intersection of identity with complex history, and carry a poignant statement about the legacy of the past in the present. 

In short, Zanele Muholi’s work, while strikingly beautiful and beguiling, cannot simply be admired without making one consider the myriad of ways society, identity, culture and aesthetics intersect. “I want to believe that my work touches the soul,” says the artist.

Zanele Muholi runs at the Tate Modern from 5 November 2020 to 7 March 2021. For more information visit the Tate Modern website.