For more than 20 years, Muholi has armed herself with a camera and a lot of pluck in order to fight for the rights of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals. Her devotion is nothing short of a crusade and her important work has received global recognition.
She recently added another feather to her cap when she was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters), France’s foremost cultural award.
The order, established in 1957, rewards those who, through their ongoing engagement and creativity, have helped develop the arts and literature in France and throughout the world. At the awards ceremony, French Ambassador Christophe Farnaud said: “France is proud to stand beside those who fight for the right to be free and equal. Muholi’s work has raised the subject of LGBTI rights in South Africa and internationally. It shines a light where there is a shadow, it creates a space where there was none.”
While gratified by the recognition, Muholi says the LGBTQI community faces heavy challenges. “I am thankful to be living in South Africa, which has a Constitution that protects us all and allows me to be who I really am. But, unfortunately, there are still countries, including some on our continent, that have outlawed being part of the LGBTI community. A lot needs to be done when it comes to educating the world that we are human beings, just like everyone else,” she says.
Muholi’s work began when she started capturing striking portraits of black LGBTI individuals – a large body of work that became the Faces and Phases collection. These are mostly done in black and white, with the subjects facing the viewer, communicating their fears and anxieties. Her aim was to draw attention to the growing number of homophobic hate crimes and murders in South Africa. Later, she explored self-portraiture to highlight the stigmatisation of gay and lesbian sexual identities.
“Photography saved my life and brought healing to me when I needed it most in my life. Through the lens, I could show the gross inequality and injustice that we continue to face till today. I showed this in a documentary called Difficult Love, which was shot in 2010 and, unfortunately, I am still attending funerals of LGBTI individuals who have been brutally murdered. I am still being called about people who have been raped and molested because of the way they have chosen to live,” she says.
Muholi’s narrative rests on the way she frames what it truly means to identify as LGBTI. In 2002, she co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women, followed in 2009 by a foundation called Inkanyiso, a platform for LGBTI visual media. Both were established in response to the failure of mainstream media to accurately tell the stories of this constantly battered community.
“We have good news to share as well, you know!” she says matter of factly. “There are LGBTI people who are doing great things in their respective fields, but they are not being profiled by some of South Africa’s major media houses. We only make headlines when one of us has been beaten or murdered. That is why I decided to tell our own stories by using the camera.”