Zanele Muholi is not a Third World Lesbian. Exhibiting a South African Queer Artist in Germany

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

25 Pages, Grade: 1.0



1 Invisible Queers in South Africa

2 The Oriental Other

3 The Third World Woman

4 The Subaltern

5 Constructing Third World Lesbians

6 Homosexuality as “the white man's disease”

7 Zanele Muholi, Visual Activist

8 How to exhibit – challenges and ideas

9 Conclusion

10 Bibliography

1 Invisible Queers in South Africa

In German mainstream media we are used to seeing pictures from Africa depicting war and natural catastrophes. The people portrayed are usually corrupt politicians, child soldiers or starving peasants. Rarely do we see empowered subjects that speak for themselves. Queer people in Africa are almost invisible, who, if they appear at all, appear as statistics or victims of homophobic homicide like those happening in Uganda. There is a certain angle of seeing Africa as a whole as homophobic and therefore backwards.

Many Germans would be surprised to learn that in 2006 South Africa became the first country in Africa (and the fifth in the world) to legalise same-sex marriage[1] – a right which is not possible in Germany even until today. Ten years before that, the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was introduced, which prohibited unfair discrimination based on sex, gender and sexual orientation[2] (as a comparison: homosexuality was criminalized in Germany until 1994 and only in 2006 the Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz (General Equal Treatment Act) prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation was introduced). The laws of South Africa concerning LGBTIQ[3] rights are some of the most progressive in the world and the queer scene celebrates its visibility publically, throwing Pride Marches in several towns.

But despite their legal rights, socially queers in South Africa, especially in rural areas, face hate crimes including harassment, physical violence, homicide and so-called corrective rape. The international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch found that “lesbians and transgender men face extensive discrimination and violence in their daily lives, both from private individuals and government officials”[4]. Within this contrast of LGBTQ rights and hate crimes, lives and works the lesbian self-proclaimed visual activist Zanele Muholi, who seeks to document the lives and struggles of Black[5] South African queers, mainly Black lesbians and trans*people[6].

In the following I will outline a museum exhibition of selected photographs by Zanele Muholi. My aim for this exhibition is on the one hand to make South African Queers visible, and on the other hand to challenge mainstream Western (and racist) notions of gender in an African society. In addition to this, I want to question whether it is possible to display such photographs in a museum without reproducing the colonial gaze.

To show why her work is important and of interest to a German audience, I will first analyse the German/Western view on Black Lesbian Women in Africa, drawing upon Said's concept of Orientalism, Mohanty's analysis of the construction of a Third World Woman and Spivak's question about the self-articulation of the subaltern. After thus concluding how Black Lesbian women are being Othered, I will analyse the article of a German mainstream newspaper to illustrate the theoretical framework with an practical example. Afterwards I will introduce the South African artist Zanele Muholi and her approach to her work as a visual activist. In the third part I will further explain the challenges and pitfalls I face upon being a white [7] scholar in Germany who wishes to exhibit the art of a Black African artist. I will outline how the exhibition will be set up and describe how through the selective use of lightning, space, and text etc. I seek to undermine colonial notions and instead offer a new, self-empowered narrative.

In the following I will use the word 'queer' to describe people belonging to the colourful range of non-heterosexual and/or non-Cis sexual identities, expressions and orientations (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Pansexuals, Trans*folks, Intersexuals, Asexuals, Agenders, Gender-Nonconforming etc.), doing justice to the diversity of human identities and desires which do not fit into the narrow definitions of constructions like “man”, “woman”, “heterosexual” and “homosexual”.

2 The Oriental Other

In his influential book Orientalism (1979) Palestinian literature theorist Edward Said examines how Western discourses and institutions produce knowledge which structures, describes and dominates the Orient, thereby legitimizing colonial rule. Orientalism is way of thinking which is based upon an assumed fundamental difference between the Orient and the Occident, the first one being inferior to the latter. Dating back to the imperial age, Orientalist discourses have been shaped by colonial powers and (though these discourse are suspect to change throughout the decades) are inherently patronising and romanticising even nowadays. Said argues that the Orient (understood here not merely as a geographical region, but a place of romance, narratives and experiences), just as the West itself, are not real geographical peculiarities, rather they are man-made entities that “support and to an extent reflect each other”[8]: there is no West without the Orient and vice versa. At first perceiving the Orient as one homogeneous culture and in the next step branding it as backwards, exotic, barbaric and feminine was necessary for the West (or Western male scholars) to see itself as modern, progressive, secular, democratic and masculine. The process of identifying a collective notion of 'us' against 'them', in which 'they' are constructed as fundamentally different and, mostly, inferior, is called 'Othering'.

The lack of self-representation which comes with Othering is illustrated in Said's example of French writer Gustave Flaubert's encounter with the Egyptian courtesan Kuchuk Hanem – it is always Flaubert speaking for her and representing her. She has no history, no emotions and no autonomy. Flaubert held the power of definition to tell the readers what was so “typically Oriental” about her.[9]

Though it was not explicitly pointed out by Said, this example is interesting for my argument because of the intersectionality of affiliations that come together in her identity. As a relatively poor woman of Color[10], Kuchuck Hanem could be dominated by Flaubert because of his privileges granted to him being white, a man and wealthier than her. The power structures of racism, sexism and classism play together in such a complex way that they cannot be separated from each other.

Returning to today's South Africa, Black lesbians and trans*people are structurally disadvantaged on numerous levels because of their 'race', sex, sexual identity and expression. We need to recognize these categories as interdependent in order to fully understand how hegemonic discourses structure our reality.

3 The Third World Woman

Drawing upon Said's concept of Othering, but specifically adding the analytical category of gender, Indian-American postcolonial theorist Chahndra Talpade Mohanty analyses in Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses how s ome recent western feminist texts construct a so-called Third World Woman. On the basis of Edward Said's concept of the West and the Orient, Mohanty states that “without the overdetermined discourse that creates the third world, there would be no (singular and privileged) first world”[11].

By characterizing all women “as a singular group on the basis of a shared oppression”[12], similarities between Western and Non-Western[13] women are drawn based on their shared gender. The problem lies in that a homogeneous notion of gender or patriarchy is being “applied universally and cross-culturally.”[14], hereby ignoring realities of differing interests, desires or affiliation to categories like class, ethnicity, 'race', ability etc.

Mohanty further shows how these women are described as generally dependent and oppressed, with men and women as “mutually exclusive groups, [...] the victims and oppressors.”[15]. This simplistic view reinforces binary divisions and makes analyses of specific historical difference impossible, since gender and 'third-worldness' are the only analytical categories. By definition, the Third World Woman can never rise above her object status: she will always be seen as ignorant, poor, uneducated, traditional, victimized, sexually constrained etc.

Mohanty concludes that the Western feminist needs the Third World Woman for a contrasting self-representation. In repeating the colonial tradition the Western feminist creates this counter-image to see herself as liberated, secular and having control over her own life.

4 The Subaltern

The essay Can the Subaltern Speak? [16] (1988) from the Indian-American literature theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak poses the question whether and how people in a position without power can articulate themselves. She borrows the term 'subaltern' from the Italian Marxist theoretician and politician Antonio Gramsci, who uses it to describe the poor, uneducated and heterogeneous peasants of rural south Italy. Spivak looks into the conditions of producing history and knowledge for and about peasant groups in India.

In arguing that Western academic knowledge is produced mainly with economic interests in mind, Spivak concludes that knowledge is neither universal nor neutral, but rather an expression of the agenda of those who produce it (which during the colonial period justified the conquest of countries and the enslavement of their inhabitants): the West uses its own language and definitions to talk to itself about the Other. Material goods and ethnographic data which are collected in the global South are brought back to the West especially for the benefit of Western scholars. This necessarily leads to the question whether it is even possible for the West to speak about the Non-West in a way which does not perpetuate the colonial discourse. Attempts to listen are prone to fail, because everything that could be said becomes distorted as it is filtered through the lens of Othering.


[1], Retrieved 6 March 2015

[2] Retrieved 6 March 2015

[3] Stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexual, Queer

[4] Retrieved 30 March 2015

[5] Black is a self-designated empowering term which does not refer to the actual skin colour, but to one's political identity and (ascribed) position in society. To distinguish the adverb from the colour it is written with capital B. (cf. Eggers et al 2005)

[6] Trans* is an umbrella term for transgender and transsexual people. Transgender refers to everyone who does not identify with the gender assigned at birth or whose identities are radically different from what society defines as „man“ or „woman“. Transsexuality is „the condition of being described/assigned as a medically typical 'male' or 'female' at birth, but having an identity that lies exclusively or near-exclusively within the gender that people tend to call opposite.“ The two can, but don't necessarily have to, coincide. (source: retrieved 23 March 2015)

[7] White does not refer to an actual skin colour, but describes one's ascribed socio-historic position. To point out the constructedness of this category it is being written in italics and, unlike the self-designated empowering term Black, in small letters. (cf. Eggers et al 2005)

[8] Said, p. 5

[9] Said, p. 7

[10] Person of Color is a self-designated empowering term which does not refer to the actual skin colour, but to one's political identity and (ascribed) position in society. (cf. Eggers et al 2005)

[11] Mohanty, p.82

[12] Mohanty, p.65

[13] Which is not to indicate that 'Western' and 'Non-Western' are homogeneous categories either!

[14] Mohanty, p.68

[15] ibidem

[16] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 271-313

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Zanele Muholi is not a Third World Lesbian. Exhibiting a South African Queer Artist in Germany
Free University of Berlin  (Otto-Suhr-Institut)
Issues of postcolonial transformation in Africa
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ISBN (Book)
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queer, queer studies, critical whiteness, postcolonialism, orientalismus, orientalism, mohanty, spivak, Edward Said, lgbt, lgbtiq, colonial gaze, exhibition
Quote paper
Anika Fuchs (Author), 2015, Zanele Muholi is not a Third World Lesbian. Exhibiting a South African Queer Artist in Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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