Zanele Muholi’s Visual Activism and the Politics of Life and Death

In this paper, I analyze the photographic work of Zanele Muholi and examine the relationships among Muholi’s work and the sexual violences perpetuated against trans, lesbian, and queer bodies in the shifting post-apartheid, postcolonial South African state. The paper considers the increased prevalence of “corrective rape” perpetrated against trans and butch bodies in South Africa even as the country’s constitution includes protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. I posit that this concurrent emergence of political protection and biopolitical social containment is reflective of the concepts of liveliness and animacy that harken back to colonial structures that animalized and objectified Black bodies. I note how effective Muholi’s work is in exceeding the bounds of those normative structures to make visible a community that is simultaneously protected by South Africa’s constitution and is highly susceptible to acts of “corrective” violence that function through the logic of necropolitics as it intersects with gender.


2 thoughts on “Zanele Muholi’s Visual Activism and the Politics of Life and Death

  1. I’m really excited to hear this paper! Your paper covers so much ground and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together. I’m working on my paper now trying to figure out how I’m going to bring together race, sexuality, rape, and animality. There’s something about it that makes it hard to bring it together but also seems like the only way to actually do it. I think using art to do it is really great because there’s something about the affect of art that does something for us that word some times are not that good at (this comment included!).

  2. I’m also looking forward to learning from you, and about your perspective on the work of Muholi. I’m wondering already about the use of photography, and its history in the hands of cultural and visual anthropologists who created a visual repertoire of colonial rule. How might this body of work differ, correct, or exceed this history? In particular, she not only creates portraits (group and solo), but also annually teaches photography and documentation courses to groups of 10-12 community members. it seems that what is under pressure here is another level of “corrective” activity, of the record. 

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