Zanele Muholi’s Elements of Survival

South African Zanele Muholi’s photographs directly address resistance and tension between individual and community. Specifically, Muholi refers to the lives and loves of people who are black and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI), aiming her project toward establishing and preserving “black queer visibility.” In the process, Muholi produces photographic images that refer to—and critically reconsider— longstanding visual traditions, while at the same time responding to acts of violence and dehumanization. The result is an expanding archive that visualizes various complexities of community and nation.

One precedent for Muholi’s use of photography in relation to black community appeared over a century ago. Deborah Willis (2003) notes that W.E.B. DuBois, then a sociology professor at Atlanta University, had a fascination with photography. For DuBois, photography played a critical role in reconstructing and shaping American visual culture at the turn of the 20th century. When assembling materials for the “American Negro” exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition, Du Bois turned to black photographers to mount challenges to blatantly racist and stereotypical images that pictured people of color as inferior, unattractive, and unintelligent. Collected several years prior to DuBois’s famous postulation of black racial identity as “double consciousness,” the photographs displayed in Paris were meant to serve as an archive of visual evidence that would prove black people were as multi- faceted as everyone else.

Unlike other exoticized collections and displays of the time, DuBois’s archive of images expresses possibility through visual self-presentation. Black photographers and their black subjects defined themselves and their beauty through photography, believing it was a significant step in the fight against violently negative imagery (Harris 2009). In a time when the deliberate distortion of black images in popular culture was common, DuBois’s archive offered a different view of the global black subject against a socio- political backdrop that made violent efforts to classify and control. Dubois’s exhibit ran counter to popular de-humanizing displays by visualizing black folk as an inextricable part of the fabric of society; it was a successful effort to overturn many common ideas about black life (Willis 2003:52). These photographs of a diverse range of black people played a role in shaping ideas about identity and a sense of self. Dubois’s collection of images motivated black folks, but they also informed the broader American social consciousness. Beyond racial concerns, black photographers were interested in locating and reproducing the beauty and fragility of people close to them, the humor of everyday life, and the dreams of a people (Enwezor 2006, Firstenberg 2001). The visualization of educated, working, and dreaming black people formed a visual archive that documented a diverse nation of dignified, proud, suc- cessful, and beautiful humans. […]