What does it mean to be an African lesbian?

In her many works, South African photo activist Zanele Mutholi explores the meaning of being a same-gender-loving woman in Africa. Zanele’s photographic work challenges the many stereotypes of African womanhood, femininity, masculinity and victimhood often displayed by the media both on the continent and abroad. At the same time she allows herself – and us – to celebrate not just our bodies but what they do and give to us.   

The women Zanele photographs are those she meets face to face in her community of lesbians in the townships of South Africa – Alexandria, Soweto, Vosloorus, Katlehong and Kagiso. In the series of photographs Faces and Phases she focuses on the face as an expression of the self whilst the phases are the stages and identities ‘which unfold in parallel in our existence’.

‘Individuals in this series of photographs hold different positions and play many different roles within the black lesbian community: soccer player, actress, scholar, cultural activist, lawyer, dancer, film maker, human rights/gender activist. However, each time we are represented by outsiders, we are merely seen as victims of rape and homophobia.’


The essence of each of the women is captured through their faces, which together with stance and clothing are expressions of their sexuality. The photos (both this exhibition and others by Zanele) give an insight into how we create meaning of ourselves and the world around us, the feelings from inside which drive us to being who we are. I can’t express where these feelings come from, I just know they are deep inside and the only relief is to let them out by expressing them physically and emotionally. When those meanings – attitudes, beliefs, expectations, dreams, everything that is YOU – challenge patriarchy and social mores they become stigmatized and hold painful consequences for those who dare to release their inner selves. In such hostile environments, coming out is an act of resistance, and creating meaning through community is a further act of resistance and also one of survival.

Zanele mentions the pain and the joy behind some of the women:

‘From an insider’s perspective, this project is meant as a commemoration and a celebration of the lives of black lesbians that I met in my journeys through the townships. Lives and narratives are told with both pain and joy, as some of these women were going through hardships in their lives. Their stories caused me sleepless nights as I did not know how to deal with the urgent needs I was told about.’

The pain of being violated by men as well as of being ostracized from family and community leave many African lesbians dislocated, with feelings of unbelonging and guilt leading to depression and low self-esteem and to more violations of self and partners. But there is also joy. The joy of being oneself and living within the body and mind that is comfortable and is you. Of standing up and making the declaration that this is who I am no matter what. The joy of loving and being loved by lovers and friends. But it remains a daily struggle as homophobia follows you around like a shadow in the fading light.

And the tentacles of homophobia reach across the Sahara and Mediterranean to engulf you in the Diaspora. Many African lesbians living in the West, which is not an easy choice in itself, find themselves living in isolation. The need to be part of our nation in exile conflicts with the need to be our lesbian selves. Do you become anonymous or resign yourself to forced heterosexuality, denial and deep depression? Far from home the loss of family, community and religious affiliation is exacerbated. For those who do not have papers there is the additional stress of being found by the police and immigration authorities and having to fight for survival on multiple fronts. To get a job and send money home; to be out; to hide your immigration status; to disappear and become invisible in all aspects of your life.

Zanele describes her photographic work as ‘visual activism’ and a way to ‘mark resistance and existence as black lesbians in our country, because it is important to put a face on each and every issue’.