‘I appreciate the space and the opportunity the museum is giving me, not so much for me, but for the entire community’, South-African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi says about her debut museum solo exhibition in the Netherlands that opens tonight at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Muholi’s powerful and pervasive work is an integral part of her activism for the acceptance of the black lesbian and transgender community in South Africa. ‘It is the community that is here, not only me’, she says two days before the opening. ‘That’s why I always try to bring friends, fellow artists to my shows. For the opening here I invited musician and actress Anelisa “Annalyzer” Stuurman and the poet Philile “Phila” Mbanjwa to perform. This is not just about me.’

Quality is key

Two days before the opening the exhibition looks pretty much ready, but Muholi is not entirely satisfied yet. ‘Quality is key’, she says. ‘If you give in on quality it will backfire on you.’

The solo exhibition follows the Prince Claus Award Muholi received in 2013, after which the Stedelijk Museum acquired several of her photos. On show now are photos from her earlier series Faces and Phases, and Brave Beauties, as well as Muholi’s latest series Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Black Lioness, 2015 to the present). While the previous series consist of emotionally charged, uncompromising portraits of black lesbians, Muholi turned the camera on herself for the latest series. ‘Through an inventive manipulation of props and lighting’, the exhibition text reads, ‘Muholi creates historical, cultural and personally inspired versions of “blackness”.’

Some of the self-portraits refer to historical moments in South-African history, including the Marikana massacre. Another series, Bester I-V, refers to her mother who worked as a domestic servant in the household of a white family.


‘Change is there,’ Muholi says, when asked whether she feels that South Africa has changed in the course of the more than years she is working now. ‘Change comes with new generations. People are growing up and how they approach life has changed. Also how academics have embraced the work has changed. But it is not enough. There is still a lot of education needed, especially in South Africa. But you can’t have change without challenges.’

In 2009 Muholi started the Internet platform Inkanyiso (Zulu for ‘the one who brings light’) providing space to friends, fellow artists and young photographers she educated to document a visual history of LGBTQI communities. ‘We document weddings and funerals and pride manifestations, all the things that can’t be left undocumented,’ Muholi says. The website brings an on-going collection of intense, moving, heart-breaking and also joyful stories about a community that self-consciously claims its place in society.

Zanele Muholi features in last year’s WDCD’s publication ‘What Africa Can Do For Europe. 31 Brilliant Ideas to Inspire the World.’  For orders, visit our webshop.

Top image: From left to right: Bester I, Bester IV, and Bester V by Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Zanele Muholi
8 July-15 October 2017
Stedelijk Museum
Paulus Potterstraat

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