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Photographer Zanele Muholi on What it Means To Be a “Visual Activist”

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I'm a visual activist. Because we deal with photographs, it's maybe easier to say you are a visual artist. So this will respect all parties concerned. I prefer to be a visual activist because most of the issues that I try to deal with in my work, they deal with human rights and human rights being– believing in the importance of self-representation, the importance of owning your voice, the importance of speaking out wherever there's a need, the importance of saying to whoever that might not have access to spaces to say, let's help along– let's come along.

So I had a choice to come to Philadelphia and just work on my own and be comfortable. But then I suggested when I was invited to come on residency here that I'm allowed to work with the locals because they have something to say and also to see how one maneuver the space with the people who might not have access to different spaces. Yeah, so visual activism is basically dealing with an agenda– you know, a political agenda and using visuals as a means of articulation.

South African photographer Zanele Muholi spoke to us during their year-long residency with Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. Muholi’s first major US-based project, the Women's Mobile Museum, reimagines a museum as a collaborative, mobile exhibition space, with works addressing representation and identity, created by ten Philadelphia women alongside works by Muholi and teaching artist Lindeka Qampi. In this video, Muholi explains why they describes themself as a “visual activist.”

A culminating exhibition was on view at Philadelphia Photo Arts Center in early 2019, in addition to an installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Zanele Muholi is an award-winning artist who explores race, gender, and sexuality. Their work has been exhibited at Documenta 13, the South African Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, and the 29th São Paulo Biennale. Their work is included in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and more.