By Stephanie Brown,
Less than two months ago, 39-year-old South African photographer Zanele Muholi returned to the home she shares with her partner Liesl Theron to find that all of her equipment had been stolen. Expensive electronics like the television and the DVD player remained untouched, but every camera, memory card, and hard drive that belonged to Zanele had vanished.
“I feel like a breathing zombie right now,” wrote Zanele. “I don’t even know where to start.”
The artist is grieving the loss not of the equipment but rather of five years’ worth of projects, videos, and photographs that documented the resilience and tenderness of black lesbians in South Africa.
The South African LGBTQ community is engaged in an ongoing struggle against the myth that being gay is somehow un-African, and therefore detrimental to African society. Zanele hopes her photographs will show the public that lesbians are regular people in loving relationships.
“We come from families, we have friends, we work, we think, we care… we are here and we are part and parcel of this democracy,” Zanele explained in her 2011 documentary Difficult Love, which describes some of the obstacles African lesbians face everyday. She wants people to recognize that LGBTQ life “is part of [Africa’s] history. It needs to be archived. It needs to be shared.”
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Former Minister of Arts and Culture Lulama Xingwana once walked out of one of Zanele’s exhibitions, deeming it “immoral” and “against nation building.” But the theft of Zanele’s entire body of work is the most devastating form of opposition yet. “I’ve dedicated my entire life to documenting queer lives,” wrote Zanele. “All my major projects are gone.”
Zanele’s loss is a loss for all of us. Her missing work includes photographs that tell stories of love, violence, and survival that we will never get to see – beautiful moments, tragic moments, moments that changed people’s lives, all gone.
But perhaps there is a silver lining.
While Zanele has long held the respect of her community, the theft of her equipment has brought her photographs to international attention. Thus the thief’s attempt to silence Zanele seems to have backfired. There are now hundreds of people looking at Zanele’s published work who would probably never have heard of her otherwise.
And with increased awareness of her work comes increased awareness of the issues Zanele seeks to expose, including the violence that ignorant people commit against African lesbians. Zanele’s stolen work contained a number of photographs taken at funerals of hate crime victims, and her documentary Difficult Love introduces us to Millicent Gaika, a woman who was beaten and raped repeatedly for five hours by a man who wanted to “make her a real woman.”
Although the loss of Zanele’s unpublished work is devastating, we can keep the thieves from winning by using the theft to call attention to these and other human rights abuses the LGBTQ community faces in South Africa and around the world. If the theft ultimately causes us to step up our efforts to stop “corrective” rape and hate crimes, Zanele’s work will have achieved its intended effect, even though we can no longer view it.
Watch Zanele’s documentary. Visit her website. Browse her photographs. By celebrating and sharing the images and videos we still have, we can honor those women whose stories have been hidden from us and, perhaps, help make the world a bit more tolerant.