Durban born photographer and visual art activist Zanele Muholi was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) by French ambassador Christophe Farnaud at a reception in Pretoria on Tuesday night. 

Muholi is an internationally acclaimed South African photographer. Born in 1972 in Umlazi, the artist’s work is deeply intertwined with advocacy on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community.

Also present was South African photographer David Goldblatt, who founded the Market Photo Workshop and who mentored Muholi. In 2016, Goldblatt was awarded the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres.

Farnaud praised Muholi’s work: “Muholi is an internationally acclaimed “visual activist”, as she puts it. France is proud to stand beside those who fight for the right to be free and equal. Muholi’s work has raised the subject of LGBTQI rights in South Africa and internationally. It shines a light where there is shadow, it creates a space where there was none.”

Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters)

Muholi cofounded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women in 2002 and in 2009 founded Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual media.

The artist has produced a number of photographic series that investigate the disconnect in post-apartheid South Africa between the equality promoted by the constitution and the intolerance toward and violent acts targeting individuals within the LGBTQI community.

In 2009, Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana walked out of an exhibition that featured Muholi’s photography, calling it immoral, offensive and going against nation-building. In response Muholi said: “It’s paralysing. I expected people to think before they act, and to ask questions. I wanted to create dialogue.”

Muholi thanked Goldblatt for his guidance and vowed to support other young photographers: “I want to thank all the people who have helped me. I want to make sure there is a new generation of photographers in the LGBTQI community”.

The Order of Arts and Letters, established in 1957 by the French Minister of Culture, rewards those who, through their ongoing engagement and creativity, have helped develop the arts and literature in France and throughout the world.