Zanele Muholi's Intimate Archive: Photography and Post-apartheid Lesbian Lives

Journal Article


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title

Safundi : journal of South African and American studies

Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

This paper focuses on the work of South African black lesbian photographer Zanele Muholi and raises the question of how experience that is deemed unspeakable can enter representation. If we always read images through ‘‘codes of connotation,’’ through what Roland Barthes terms the ‘‘studium’’ of our knowing, how is it possible to overturn ways of seeing that render lesbian subjectivity invisible?2 And if lesbian subjectivity is made visible through suspending the structures of recognition, what are the political implications of occupying such an ‘‘outlaw’’ position? How does being beyond recognition open or close the field of political possibility? The paper makes two theoretical claims: one, that Barthes’ influential concept of the ‘‘punctum’’ can be understood as a mode of queer reading, and two, that Muholi’s work constructs an archive that insists on the specificity of lesbian lives and loss through a complex strategy of ‘‘passing.’’ My reading of Muholi’s portraits that constitute her ‘‘Faces and Phases’’ series explores how her photographs work with the ambiguities of ‘‘passing’’—passing away, passing between states of gendered being, and passing through the prohibitions against making lesbian experience visible and mourning lesbian loss. In this way, the paper argues that Muholi’s most recent body of work ‘‘queers’’ both the conventions of memorial photography and her own earlier representations of lesbian subjectivity.