Zanele Muholi’s stolen archives and the role of the black female artist


Imagine yourself as a visual artist. Imagine making a living on your drawings, photographs, paintings, performances, lectures etc. You have a huge studio with all the equipment and supplies you need in order to create your work. You have museums calling you, flying you around the world on their dime and paying you to speak to 200 students for an hour. They buy your dinner, organize a chauffeur, and even organize a liaison to assist you whenever you need. Museums, galleries and schools call you on a daily basis, begging for your presence. Your only responsibility is to provide the artwork. Now imagine if all your equipment is stolen. Imagine that all your paintings, photographs, and drawings were stolen. Your huge studio is now trashed and nothing is salvageable.

Zanele Muholi, a South African Lesbian photographer does not have to imagine any of this. Muholi has spent her entire life documenting the lives of South African lesbian. She has photographed women participating in intimate moments of love and affection, breast binding as well as victims of “curative” rapes. Muholi is recognized around the world as one of South Africa’s foremost artists and on April 26th her entire life’s work was stolen. You name it, and it was stolen. Her cameras, film, printed images, video footage, computers, and printers were all stolen. Muholi is a smart woman, and she backed her images on dozens of external hard drives. Unfortunately all of those were stolen as well! Over the last five years, Muholi has documented the funerals of victims of homophobic hate crimes in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Malawi. And of course, these are the images on the external hard drives. It is believed that Muholi was targeted due to the nature of her art work. And while some do not want to believe that an artist has been targeted, Muholi’s partner’s belongings were left untouched with the exception of the laptop. Since the theft, Muholi’s exhibitions have been canceled and her life is now on hold. She says, “”I’m not myself. I can’t even sleep at night since the burglary.”

 The lack of media attention and mediocre police investigation reveals a different side to how the black lesbian is received in South Africa. Although South Africa legalized gay marriage in 2006, the number of “mercy”/”curative” rapes, homophobic murders, and beatings are still on the rise in black townships. And now with the theft of Muholi’s work, one can only assume that the two are related. 

Every artist I know is livid. They could not imagine their entire life’s work being stolen and having to cancel exhibitions around the world. However, outside of the art world there are people who believe she was “asking for it”. “She knew it was a touchy subject, she shouldn’t have taken those types of photos, and homosexuality is against God ya know…” And while this can be debated for years, I am more concerned with how the artist is viewed in our society, especially the black female artist. Are black women supposed to paint pictures of the infamous “strong black man” ? How about Jesus? Should we paint pictures of women carrying baskets on their heads and smiling? Harriet Tubman? Martin Luther King? Or the one I love the most: “identity”. Museums are eating up artwork by black women that “explores their identity as an African American Woman in America”. While identity is valid, I personally feel that many art spaces are marginalizing black female artists by exhibiting “identity” based works in mass. Can a black female artists do anything else?! Yes! Yes we can !


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