Exklusive Interview with Zanele Muholi

Exklusive interview with the if possible most provoking artist of South Africa

(Editor: Ghassan Abid)

© Artist Zanele Muholi

In 1972, Zanele Muholi was born in township Umlazi/Durban. She is  skilled photograph as well activist for women´s rights  and homosexual  relationships. Her photography is presenting black women, especially their intimacy. In conservative South Africa meets this open exposure with the female body with much resistance. In March 2010 was planned, that the Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, should open an exhibition of black female artists in Johannesburg, but as she had seen photos of Zanele Muholi, she denounced her art as „immoral, pornographic and against nation-building„. In consequence of this feelings she leaved angry this exhibition. However, Zanele Muholi, who is living in a lesbian relationship, is receiving by the international art scene much encouragement, respect and awards. Our South Africa web portal is pleased as much more to interview this „power woman“, who don´t to mince one´s words.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Good day Zanele Muholi, we are happy to welcome you on „SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste“ – the German Gateway to South Africa! The majority of the South African society, especially men, is still detesting homosexuality. In Germany this aggressive atmosphere against these citizens is existing too. I have taken notice about your lesbian relationship. Which personal experiences have you and your partner already done in this context?

Answer: It is not only men who have an issue with homosexuality, it is women too. We can’t just say the problem of homophobia is patriarchy–there is also the fact that our society is organized around heterosexual values. Yes, men are the ones who rape lesbians to “correct” them and turn them into “real” women. But also, I have heard of cases where family members—mothers even–will ask a man to rape their lesbian daughter to turn her back into a proper “African” woman, meaning a woman who will get married and give birth to a child. This is the point where patriarchy and heterosexism intersect to create the false notion that only heterosexual women can be married and give birth to children. But there are so many lesbian mothers in my community, and their children were conceived through different circumstances.

In my own case, I had an experience of hate crime many years ago when the mother of my girlfriend beat me because I am a lesbian. She accused me of influencing her daughter to become “this thing” and I was called a “pervert.”

© Musa Ngubane and Mabongi Ndlovu, Hillbrow, Johannesburg

So I understand and have had experiences with homophobia at the hand of my ex-girlfriend’s mom. But then I never had a bad homophobic experience in my own family, as did many of my friends. My beloved mother Bester Ziqubu Muholi, who passed away from us on the 27th of September 2009, saw all my past lovers as part of her family. She taught us to love and accept everyone. My ex lovers are still welcomed at home by my brothers and my sisters even though my mother is gone, because she taught my family to accept and respect the intimacy and love between me and my partners.  She accepted each one not as a friend or as my sister, but as my lover.

As an activist, I have been discriminated against as a black lesbian even in the progressive movements in South Africa. In 2004 one service provider wrote a letter and said that she cannot help fund any project that has to do with a promiscuous homosexual. The most recent incident happened when the Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, walked out of one of the group exhibition themed „Innovative Women“ in which my photographs featured because she believed that the photographs of naked lesbians were ‘immoral’ and ‘against nation-building’.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: How the South African government under President Jacob Zuma is dealing with this problem of intolerance?

Answer: In 2006, Jacob Zuma was accused by a young, long-time family friend of raping her. The woman was known to the media as Khwezi, though this is not her real name. The case went to court and Zuma was acquitted of the charges. The young woman identified as a lesbian, and the same old sexist stories about female victims of sexual assault were perpetrated in court in order to discredit her—she wanted the sex, she is an unstable woman , and the older male’s version of the story was the believable one. This is not new. But what was so frightening about this case is the violent reaction s and feelings that both men and women had toward Khwezi. Demonstrations were held daily calling for her punishment, even her death. Khwezi today is exiled and feels it is not safe for her return to South Africa.  When you then add into this dynamic the actions of the Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, who walked out of one of the women’s exhibition because she believed the photographs of naked lesbians to be ‘immoral’ and ‘against nation-building, then I would say that the nation building project in South Africa needs to go beyond mere paper rights as enshrined in our 1996 Constitution

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Your are a member of Zulus, an ethnic group in the East of South Africa. Which cultural characteristics are defining Zulus compared to other groups?

Answer: The language, traditional practices such as “ilobolo” – ‘Mahadi´ in Sesotho, sometimes translated as bride price; is a traditional Southern African custom whereby the man pays the family of his fiancée for her hand in marriage.’ We have traditional medicine, dance, music, food, religion – for instance Shembe church is associated with some members of our tribe, traditional clothing and decoration such as beads and many other elements which are vanishing day by day due to modernity perceived as civilization by many.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Many South Africans are reviewing Sangomas – traditional healer – more important as Western medical practitioners. Which significance would you give Sangomas to your own medicare? Also, Scientists and representatives of non-governmental organisations are criticizing Sangomas for promoting the rape of virgins, in order that a HIV-infection could be cured. What is your view on this matter?

Answer: It is simplistic to suggest that all Sangomas  from the many different ethnic traditions and cultures in South Africa practice their healing in the same way, just like it is simplistic to assume that all western-trained doctors have the same values, ethics, practices, and knowledges. Many Sangomas are willing to work with western medicine and incorporate western knowledge into their traditional healing practice, especially around HIV/AIDS. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also make use of western medicine if it can help me. Maybe there are some Sangomas who will say having sex with a virgin will cure HIV, which is not true. However, I have respect for alternative medicine. In 2008, I directed a documentary called „Isangoma: Urban Shaman“, a story of a female traditional healer who practices in cosmopolitan Toronto. But it is also a story that gets repeated, like an urban legend. No one knows anymore where this theory started or who started it. Yes there are men who now believe this is true. But again, such folktales tend to be repeated by the people rather than by most Sangomas.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Your exhibitions and works of art are in some cases really provocative, such as the project „Massa“ and Mina(h)“. What this project is talking about and what does is it mean „Massa“ and „Mina(h)“?

Answer: The project is based on the life and story of my mother. I draw on my own memories, and pay tribute to her domesticated role as a worker for the same family for 42 years. The series is meant to acknowledge all domestic workers around the globe who continue to labour with dignity, while often facing physical, financial, and emotional abuses in their places of work.

© Work of Art of series ´Massa and Mina(h)´

In this series, I turn my own black and queer body into a subject of art. I allow various photographers to capture my image as directed by me.  I use performativity to deal with the still racialized issues of female domesticity—black women doing housework for white families. In the past and still today we hear the stories of the female black domestic worker being raped or having an intimate relationship with the white male Massa. But let’s queer it and imagine that those white Madams may have loved their black maids, been intimate with them. Maybe because they shared something simply as  two women in love, or maybe it was a purely carnal relationship based either on mutual erotic desire, or on the unequal power and labour relations that exist(ed) between black women and white women, that the white Madams, like the white Massa, took advantage of the situation. We don’t know. And it’s still so taboo to talk about. But, I want to get people talking and looking at race, gender and sexuality in the context of domestic work.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Which upcoming artistic idea are you planning?

Answer: I have started a new posed-photographic series that focuses on (queer) polygamy with a tentative title ‘Mbhekeni’ – which means a gendered spectacle. Most of my projects are work in progress, so right now I continue from where I started. It could either be ´Faces & Phases´, ´Being´, ´Beulahs´ and my blood series where I articulate pain and loss of friends and lovers through many forms hate crimes: ‘curative rapes’ and murders.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Have you been already in Germany? How would you to describe German culture and which intuitive feelings of Germany do you have?

Answer: I don’t know much about German culture so I won’t like to make any claims. I have been to Germany a few times now, and took part in the conference themed ´Black Autonomy´, ADEFRA (www.adefra.de), Berlin, Germany in 2006. I will be there again this year to photograph and give support to black lesbians athletes who will be participating at the 2010 Cologne Gay Games.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Are you preparing an in Germany helding exhibition in future?

Answer: I’ll be showing in Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in a few days–’11 Friends‘ – Identity & Otherness –the exhibition opens on 30th May 2010.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Which dreams would you like to realize and which one have been already achieved?

Answer: I wanted to have my work published. So in 2006 I had my first collection published – ´Only Half the Picture´. In 2010 will have my second publication called Faces & Phases published by Prestel.

2010sdafrika-editorial staff: Zanele Muholi , we would like to thank you!


This interview has been translated in German. For this one please click on following link: https://2010sdafrika.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/exklusiv-interview-mit-zanele-muholi/.


Homepage of Fine Art photographer Zanele Muholi:


3 Antworten zu “Exklusive Interview with Zanele Muholi

  1. Pingback: Fotograf Jürgen Schadeberg im Interview | SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste

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  3. Pingback: Photos with reflection on the psyche – Roger Ballen in interview « SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste

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