Zanele Muholi was honoured at the Index on Censorship Awards for ‘courage and the powerful statements made by her work.’ South African photographer and LGBT activist Zanele Muholi challenges traditional perceptions of the black female body — and specifically black lesbians — through her work.
She has faced considerable opposition in South Africa where lesbians have been the targets of horrendous hate crimes including murders and “corrective rape”. Dedicating the award to two friends who were victims of hate crimes and later succumbed to HIV complications, Muholi said: ‘To all the activists, gender activists, visual activists, queer artists; writers, poets, performers, art activists, organic intellectuals who use all art forms of expressions in South Africa. The war is not over till we reach an end to ‘curative rapes’ and brutal killing of black lesbians, gays and transpersons in South Africa.’
On 21 March 2013 her work was recognised with a major international freedom of expression prize at the Index on Censorship awards, which, according to chairman Jonathan Dimbleby, celebrate the fundamental right to “write, blog, tweet, speak out, protest and create art and literature and music”.
Muholi said that South Africa was country of huge contrasts for gay people: on the one hand it has been enormously progressive and in 1996 became the first country in the world to constitutionally prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; on the other, there is a culture of fear if you are gay and serious hate crime is a huge problem, including “corrective” rape to “straighten out” lesbians. In the last year, four women have been murdered because of their sexuality, including Phumeza Nkolonzi, 22, who was shot dead in front of her grandmother and niece, and Sihle Sikoji, aged 19 when she was stabbed to death.
Getting the award comes at a particularly poignant time for Muholi, she said, because it is six years after the death of Busi Sigasa and seven after the death of Buhle Msibi – both black lesbian activists who were survivors of rape but who ended up HIV-positive. Both were activist colleagues and featured in her photography.
Muholi hopes that her work helps other lesbians in South Africa. “The minute you see likeness is when you realise that no matter what you’re going through in your own life, you are not alone,” she said.
Kirsty Hughes, the chief executive of Index, said: “Zanele has shown tremendous bravery in the face of criticism and harassment for ground-breaking images which include intimate portraits of gay women in South Africa, where homosexuality is still taboo and lesbians are the target of horrific hate crimes. She has won the award both for her courage and the powerful statements made by her work.”