South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi has spent more than 10 years documenting the lives of the LGBT community in South Africa. Her Faces and Phases project is an ongoing series of positive imagery featuring black lesbian and transgender individuals, and was a response to the rampant violence taking place against them in her homeland. After having shot more than 250 portraits in that work, it began to take a toll on her emotionally. “I’ve listened to so many people’s pain, and it meant I had to sleep with that pain when people moved on with their lives,’’ she explains to Jenna Wortham for The New York Times Magazine. ‘‘When do photographers get time to deal with their own pain and be given their space to do it?’’ Though she didn’t give up on documenting these stories, she decided to focus her lens on herself. With Somnyama Ngonyama or Hail, the Dark Lioness, she presented a series of self portraits with a historical spin on South African politics. “This is why the self-portraits are so major to me,’’ she continues. ‘‘We get caught up in other people’s worlds, and you never ask yourself how you became.’’ And so she began the difficult work of looking at herself, her form of self-therapy. “The whole thing of turning the camera to yourself—it’s really not easy,’’ she says. ‘‘Because you want to tell the truth, but at the same time you have reservations for confronting the self, dealing with you.’’
Though seemingly personal work, MaID has contributed to diversifying the scope of images of black women in media. “Experimenting with different characters and archetypes, I have portrayed myself in highly stylised fashion using the performative and expressive language of theatre,” she shares. “By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I'm reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other.” Muholi has had solo exhibitions around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Schwules Museum in Berlin.