French kudos: Visual activist Zanele Muholi’s journey as photographer started at the Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt. She has been awarded the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s ambassador to SA, Christophe Farnaud, in Pretoria. Picture: PHILL MAGAKOE
French kudos: Visual activist Zanele Muholi’s journey as photographer started at the Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt. She has been awarded the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s ambassador to SA, Christophe Farnaud, in Pretoria. Picture: PHILL MAGAKOE

Visual activist Zanele Muholi was awarded the insignia of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) in Pretoria last week. It was a night to remember when the ambassador of France to SA, Christophe Farnaud, amid loud ululating and excitement, honoured Muholi.

She is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose work is embedded with advocacy on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.

As if this award wasn’t honour enough, the gathering transformed the night into something extraordinary, something very South African.

Muholi has not had an easy pathway to recognition, but listening to the story of her struggle to achieve this recognition, makes it clear that special artists will find a way.

She was guided by her mentor, acclaimed photographer David Goldblatt, who had also received the order years ago.

She first heard about Goldblatt through the Market Photo Workshop, her other home, which he had founded.

Muholi turned up on Goldblatt’s doorstep one day and announced that he was to be her mentor. "Usually they find you," she says. But that was not her way: she knew that he was her man, the one to guide her.

Goldblatt and his wife, Lily, took her in, gave her food and care when she needed it, and sponsored her international studies. She had had no means to finance these.

At the award ceremony, she pointed to "this old white man" and explained how she got to know that "not all white people are racist".

They had obviously lost touch because, reading between the lines, Muholi did not want them to know that she needed money — again.

It had been enough.

She didn’t know whether the Goldblatts would attend the special night to honour her, but as someone who spotted her talent from the beginning, he will surely never let go.

For many South Africans in the room, it was yet another story that confirmed this country’s unique opportunity to experience humaneness.

The order, which was established in 1957 by the French minister of culture, rewards those who, through their continued engagement and creativity, have helped develop the arts and literature in France and throughout the world.

In presenting the award to Muholi, Farnaud said that France was proud to stand beside those who fight for rights to be free and equal, whoever they are and wherever they are.

"Your courage is a lesson to all those who are blind to injustices and who forget that the battle against ignorance and hate is never won, but needs to be fought every hour of every day," he said.

You shine a light where there is shadow; your work creates a space where there was none

"Through your work, you have given black lesbian and transgender communities here and overseas a new visibility. Marginalisation and discrimination take many forms, but one of the most pernicious is the denial that a problem exists.

"Your efforts to raise the subject of LGBTI rights challenge prejudice and complacency everywhere," Farnaud said.

"You shine a light where there is shadow; your work creates a space where there was none," he added.

Farnaud noted that Muholi preferred to be recognised as a "visual activist", rather than an artist, but argued she was both.

Born in 1972, Muholi grew up in Umlazi, a township in Durban. In the early ’90s, as the apartheid system ended and SA transitioned to democracy, she moved to Johannesburg and earned a living as a hair stylist, and then through her 20s took on human resources jobs.

"You found your vocation when you attended the Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt. In 2004, you celebrated your first solo exhibition, Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery," Farnaud said.

He explained that even before her photographic journeys into black female sexuality and gender in Africa, Muholi had been working as a human rights activist. "In 2002, you co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women, an organisation dedicated to providing a safe space for black lesbians," Farnaud said.

"You then spent more than three years researching and documenting hate crimes in order to bring the reality of ‘corrective rape’ assault, HIV/AIDS and murders of black lesbians to public attention. In 2009, you founded Inkanyiso, a forum that deals with visual arts, activism, media and advocacy."

Because of her activism, she has earned a global reputation and a long list of awards from institutions around the world.

Muholi’s work is now included in major collections, including those of Moma in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and in many other art institutions in France, most recently in Arles.

Even more impressively, she continues to organise and run photography workshops for young women in townships. "The gap between the provisions of the progressive constitution of SA and the failure to defend the LGBTI community from targeted violence is a constant and powerful theme," Farnaud said.

With the formalities out of the way, Muholi was celebrated gloriously by the praise singer Annalise Stuurman and drag artist Odidi Mfenyana and blessed by two pastors.

The Market Photo Workshop is hosting Faces and Phases 11, a special project by Muholi that celebrates the 11th anniversary of her acclaimed portrait series documenting black lesbian and transgender individuals from SA and beyond.

Muholi said the project had started in 2006 as an awareness of "the lack of documentation of my community, and its absence from visual history".

The realisation drove her to embark on the series of black-and-white portraits.

Since taking her first image, of Busi Sigasa at Constitution Hill, she has captured more than 250 portraits and is now producing follow-up images of her participants as they go through various phases in their lives.

• Faces and Phases 11 can be viewed at the Market Photo Workshop, 138 Lillian Ngoyi St (formerly Bree St), Newtown, Johannesburg until February 28.

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