Captured and Seen: A Conversation with Zanele Muholi – Michèle Pearson Clarke

This is a very different introduction to this interview than I had planned. As I write this, my mother is undergoing surgery to remove cancerous tumours from her brain. We are nearing the end of a 14-year battle with pancreatic cancer and I am reminded yet again of her inordinate reserves of grace and resilience. And as I write this, I am reminded yet again of all that she will leave behind with me.

It’s a lot. I’m lucky, I know. I love my black queer self because she loved me. She was the first person to see me as I am. Her seeing me meant that she cut my plaits off when I asked at age six and it meant that she made me a bowtie and cummerbund for my graduation dance at age 16 and it meant that she danced with me and my friends at Pride at age 33. She saw me right into my current existence.

This is what it’s like to have Zanele Muholi take your photograph. It is the experience of being seen. A South African artist, Zanele has been documenting black queer women and transmen in her ongoing series of black and white portraits, Faces and Phases, since 2006. She began the project as a commemoration and a celebration of the lives of the black lesbians that she met in her journeys through the townships of Johannesburg. I met Zanele in 2008 while she was in Toronto studying in the Documentary Media MFA Program at Ryerson University. By then she had expanded the project to include people that she met in her travels from Cape Town to London to Toronto.

Zanele took my photograph on July 28, 2009. She met me at work and we walked down Sherbourne Street and we talked about life and photography and Joburg and Port-of-Spain. Every so often, she stopped me and took another shot with her film-loaded SLR camera. We had become friends and it was quick and casual. Months later, she sent me a single digital image. For a long time, I found it difficult to look at that photo. It was taken two days before a very painful transition in my life. When I looked at that picture, it was almost unbearable to look at the sadness in my eyes. That was all I could see and I knew why it was there. The bathroom mirror had mounted a long and spirited defense but here was undeniable evidence of loss and grief.

Two years later, time has passed and indulged in its usual bad habit of healing all wounds. Now looking at that photo is almost like looking at someone else. Almost. Zanele started the project because she wanted the world to know that black queer people exist – that we were here. My portrait is also an emotional archive and as the memories fade, I am grateful to have this stark reminder of my face and that phase. It existed. It was here.

In 2010, Prestel published a selection of portraits from the series and Zanele Muholi: Faces and Phases was nominated as best photobook of the year at the International Photobook Festival in Kassel. The series was also included in the 29th São Paulo Biennale last year and it will be featured in Face of Our Time, an exhibition of five photographers’ work, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from July 3 to October 16, 2011.

In June, Zanele showed 66 new portraits in an exhibition at Art Basel in Switzerland. I reached her on Skype while she was there and we talked about her photography and Faces and Phases. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.

Lesedi Modise

Asanda Fanti

Betesta Segale

Lerato Dumse

Musa Ngubane

Phumzile Nkosi

Skye Chirape

Michele Clarke, Toronto, 2009


At the time I was working for Behind the Mask as a reporter, and I was really,
really frustrated because I realized that there were no images of people like me.
There were no real images of black lesbians. Even though there were some
images that were there for people to see what a black lesbian looked like in my
space, they were not quite representative as to how I wanted people to perceive
black lesbians in South Africa. So I took it upon myself to make sure that we
were present in historical documents in my country. So much change had taken
place since 1994 and I couldn’t help but think, how is that you still do not see
yourself in this place?



“Most of the people I have in my photographs, there is a relationship. It excites
me to see the changes in people’s lives and also the role that the photography
plays in other people’s lives. With us, we’re still talking and in each other’s
lives and that means something to me. Because it means it went beyond just
photographing and it was more about the relationship that was established during
that period. Those memories mean a lot.”



“If you look at the backgrounds for the pictures, you have a tree in your
background. And a person who looks at your photo doesn’t read the tree and
doesn’t know what happened to you. They’re looking at this handsome person,
they sometimes think this is a trans man – that’s the first thing that they look
at: oh, that’s a young beautiful guy. They are looking at this gay man or they
are looking at this trans man and they are looking at how handsome you are.
But you are positioned next to this tree and there is this fine smooth face. What
does that mean? It basically means that’s just a façade. And the real story is as
complicated as that rough tree. But that tree grows, that tree ever changes. And
then you are wearing a checked shirt, which in a way might be read as some
form of a fragmentation of pieces that are put together perfectly.”



“Tonight made me realize how important the project really is. I knew that it
was important but I didn’t know that it would be important in this way. This is a
different space. This is not a conference, this is not my kind of setting – this is not
my kind of space. This is a space full of straight people, comfortable people who
are living their lives. They may not care about what happened to the people who
are in the images but they care about the fact that the people are here. They are
curious – they want to know who are these people and why are they here. And
people come and stand in front of the pictures to have their pictures taken with
them. I think it’s because you hardly have black faces in a big exhibition like this.
This is a big art fair and for most people, this is the first time they have seen a
black person present work like this. People are drawn to it and they want to be
a part of it. So for me, it made me realize we don’t need to keep these things to
ourselves. Just because they are images of queer people, it doesn’t mean that
the target audience should just be queer people. To have all of these people
coming into this space and appreciating us meant a lot.”



“I always say to people that I’m an activist before I’m an artist. To me, you take a
particular photo in order for other people to take action. So you become an agent
for change in a way. I say that I am a visual activist because it’s important to me
to go beyond just being a photographer. Because you know, that sounds so sexy
and it’s a “profession.” I think to myself what’s the point of just taking a picture?
What happens after that? I’m doing what I’m doing to make a statement and also
to say to people: This is possible.”


Art Basel Opening photo Zanele Muholi

Art Basel Opening photo Zanele Muholi

Michèle Pearson Clarke (@michelepclarke) is a communications professional and filmmaker who has lived in Canada for nineteen years and still misses her other home, Trinidad and Tobago. She is the director of Surrounded by Water (2003) and Black Men and Me (2006). NOW Magazine’s Cameron Bailey named Michèle one of Toronto’s 10 best Filmmakers of the Year in 2006, and the following year she won the Best Canadian Female Short Award at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film and Video Festival. She has written film reviews for Xtra! Magazine and her writing has also been published in Bent on Writing: An Anthology of Queer Tales. Michèle has served on the board of directors for Inside Out and Trinity Square Video and she was a jury member for the Ontario Association of Art Galleries annual awards in 2010. Currently she is on the board of the Feminist Art Gallery. Michèle lives in Toronto and she is interested in contemporary, alternative and queer things that have to do with black art, culture and style. She posts about those things online at

Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban, in 1972, and lives in Cape Town. She studied photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. She was a founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organisation based in Gauteng. Her solo exhibition, Only Half the Picture, which showed at Michael Stevenson in March 2006, travelled to the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg and the Afrovibes Festival in Amsterdam. Recent solo shows have taken place at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto and at Fred, London (2010). She was the recipient of the 2005 Tollman Award for the Visual Arts, the first BHP Billiton/Wits University Visual Arts Fellowship in 2006, and was the 2009 Ida Ely Rubin Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 2009 she received a Fanny Ann Eddy accolade from IRN-Africa for her outstanding contributions to the study of sexuality in Africa. She also won the Casa Africa award for best female photographer and a Fondation Blachère award at Les Rencontres de Bamako biennial of African photography in 2009. Current group exhibitions include Appropriated Landscapes at the Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm/Burlafingen, Germany (11 June – May 2012), and Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography at the V&A Museum, London (12 April – 17 July 2011). Muholi’s documentary Difficult Love (2010) has been seen – and continues to show – at film festivals around the world.

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