Photographer Zanele Muholi: 'I want to educate people about our community'

 (Zanele Muholi)
(Zanele Muholi)

South African artist Zanele Muholi is experiencing déjà vu. It’s possible that you are too. If you’re wondering where you’ve seen their work before, it was likely four years ago, when Muholi’s major Tate Modern exhibition first opened, before it was forced to close due to Covid.

Now they’re back, and Muholi’s vital, honest and captivating work is getting the run it deserves — featuring more than 260 photographs from the past three decades. Describing themself as a visual activist, Muholi documents and celebrates queer communities who often don’t see themselves reflected in society, with a particular focus on South Africa’s Black LGBTQIA+ culture. Ahead of their return to the capital, we catch up with the photographer.

Where are you right now?

I’m in LA, it’s 10am here. I’ve got an exhibition that’s opening here on Saturday.

And then you’re heading to London?

Yes. It’s the second time around for the show. So I’ll be coming to London because I missed the first one.

Will you be doing anything else while you’re here?

I’ll be continuing to shoot.

Is there anyone in particular you’re hoping to photograph?

[Electronic music artist] Toya Delazy, a South African who is based in London now. She’s my dream. If I could get a chance to shoot Toya Delazy I’d be happy.

Will you be seeing any sights, going to any restaurants or bars?

I don’t do bars or taverns. I’m not that kind of person!

That’s a shame, there’s a new lesbian bar opening while you’re here...

It’s different if it’s a launch, but I’m not the kind of person who thinks, “It’s Friday, I’m going to drink, I’m going to the bar.”

So what do you do in your spare time?

I play a lot of boardgames.

What do you hope people will learn from your exhibition?

The importance of community. I want to educate people about our community, because it’s important for people to know that we exist. Other communities have archives, so it’s important for us to have our own archive as well, so that whoever is born today has a reference point. Even if those people aren’t like us, having the knowledge that once upon a time we existed. Because I don’t think it should be a crime for people to know there are people like us. I want people to walk into the Tate, look at the images and think, “Wow, I see me in these photographs”, even if those people don’t live in the same country, there’s something that connects them.

What was your experience of growing up in South Africa as a queer person?

It’s different for people in towns and people in the suburbs. Like London, people who live in the suburbs live a different life to those who grew up in the centre. There are people growing up in South Africa who, even with the constitution, will never come out in their lifetime. I grew up there, I was born there, I survived, I’m alive. Hence, I see the need to do this work, to ensure nobody is left behind.

Do you still live in South Africa now?

Of course.

Do you feel safe there as someone who identifies as non-binary?

Safety is a concern. But also, safety is an issue for everyone, everywhere in the world. Do I feel safe? Sometimes. But sometimes I have to take precautions.

What makes you feel the most proud?

That I’m able to express myself, knowing that there are people in Africa who cannot. But that is limited, because you cannot be proud when other people are not. When other people are not happy. I’m always conscious and I always pray that as we march, everybody gets home safe. Always remembering that we are speaking for the silenced.

Why do you choose the word ‘participant’ over ‘subject’ for those you photograph?

If a person is part of this project, they are playing a bigger role than just being a subject. To me, the person in the photograph is more important than the photographer themselves. The person in front of you is the one who made the project possible.

What’s the significance of asking your participants to look directly at the camera?

It’s a way of talking back. Because as Black people, we were never in the position where we were able to talk back. But also to give people strength. It’s about resilience. Talking back, looking back, eye contact is such a powerful stance.

Having a major retrospective at the Tate is a huge achievement. Was that always a goal? 

I wanted to have my work published and for it to go beyond galleries and museums. But I never imagined this, the Tate is big.

Zanele Muholi, from 6 Jun to 26 Jan, Tate Modern (