South African photographer Zanele Muholi has spent the last 10 years determinedly creating a visual archive of black lesbian life in South Africa, often in the face of considerable opposition.
On Thursday night her work was recognised with a major international freedom of expression prize at the Index on Censorship awards, which, according to chairman Jonathan Dimbleby, celebrate the fundamental right to “write, blog, tweet, speak out, protest and create art and literature and music”.
Other winners announced at the annual prizegiving evening in London included Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and Greek editor Kostas Vaxevanis.
Muholi said that South Africa was country of huge contrasts for gay people: on the one hand it has been enormously progressive and in 1996 became the first country in the world to constitutionally prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; on the other, there is a culture of fear if you are gay and serious hate crime is a huge problem, including “corrective” rape to “straighten out” lesbians. In the last year, four women have been murdered because of their sexuality, including Phumeza Nkolonzi, 22, who was shot dead in front of her grandmother and niece, and Sihle Sikoji, aged 19 when she was stabbed to death.
Getting the award comes at a particularly poignant time for Muholi, she said, because it is six years after the death of Busi Sigasa and seven after the death of Buhle Msibi – both black lesbian activists who were survivors of rape but who ended up HIV-positive. Both were activist colleagues and featured in her photography.
Muholi hopes that her work helps other lesbians in South Africa. “The minute you see likeness is when you realise that no matter what you’re going through in your own life, you are not alone,” she said.
Kirsty Hughes, the chief executive of Index, said: “Zanele has shown tremendous bravery in the face of criticism and harassment for ground-breaking images which include intimate portraits of gay women in South Africa, where homosexuality is still taboo and lesbians are the target of horrific hate crimes. She has won the award both for her courage and the powerful statements made by her work.”