Five Years of Zanele Muholi’s Photos of LGBT Lives in Africa Stolen From Her Apartment

Melanie Nathan and Zanele Muholi

During Artist Attack! month I wrote about the amazing South African photographer Zanele Muholi who uses her work as “visual activism.” On April 26th, Muholi arrived home to her apartment in Cape Town to learn that more than 20 hard drives with backup of her work from the years 2008-2012 had been stolen by a thief out her bathroom window on April 20th.  According to her partner, Liesl Theron, the rest of her possessions were left untouched furthering the likelihood that this was a targeted attack.

The robbery has seen little press coverage, which has lead to further outrage as many believe the media blackout is due to the nature of Muholi’s work documenting queer South Africans and homosexuals in other African countries. Some of the only coverage I’ve seen of the story is by Melanie Nathan, a blogger and activist pictured at right with Muholi.

Muholi has created an IndieGoGo campaign in response:

I feel like a breathing zombie right now.
I don’t even know where to start. I’m wasted.
I’ve sent out a note to friends to tell them about the incident.

The person/s got access to the flat via the toilet window, broke the burglar guard and got away with my cameras, lenses, memory cards and external hard drives, laptop, cellphones…
Whoever ransacked the place got away with more than 20 external hard drives with the most valuable content I’ve ever produced

I am hoping that a few of my good friends are willing to go to pawn shops or to other places where this type of equipment is sold. I do not even want to know who the thief is.

I need the hard drives: ranging from toshiba, Western, Samsung at 320GB – 1TB each–these are the brands and sizes of hard drive I am looking for.
They would have gone into the pawn shop since 20 April. I am willing to pay a reward for the return of those ext. hard drives.
I certainly would pay more than the pawn shop can sell them for.

Thanking you in advance.

Nathan is asking anyone interested in establishing a reward fund for the returned goods to contact her ([email protected]) directly.

Zinzi and Tozama II Mowbray, Cape Town, 2010. Photo by: Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson Gallery.

The IndieGoGo campaign has raised about $3,000 so far to replace Muholi’s stolen equipment, but obviously the years worth of original photography and video footage documenting queer black history in places such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Uganda is irreplaceable. The stolen work included photos taken at the funerals of lesbians killed in hate crimes, as well as works in progress and work that Muholi had planned to exhibit in July. The show will now have to be canceled. The loss of these often unrepresented voices whom Muholi has worked so hard to document and share with the world is disturbing enough, but the fact that few mainstream media outlets have deemed the story unworthy of covering means that even the loss of these women’s stories is going without notice.

Will any of the larger arts, human rights or media organizations step forward to provide coverage of this story? If there is any chance of recovering her work, time is of the essence. Considering the plethora of media sound bites promoting gay rights as the new human rights frontier in America following Obama’s pronouncement last week in support of gay marriage, it would be heartening if Muholi’s story was considered worth telling.

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Jamie lives in Boston and is currently a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a freelance writer and also a team associate for the Boston chapter of Hollaback!.

Jamie has written 79 articles for us.

24 Comments

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    This is heartbreaking — I think I was turned on to her work when doing research for our first Art Attack! gallery, and her stuff is so special and so unique and so not like anything that anybody else is doing. It’s any artist’s worst nightmare, but tenfold in this case. This is just so so very sad.

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    This is devastating. I am currently living and studying in South Africa, i have watched the film Difficult Love twice in two separate courses and had numerous discussion about the impact of Zanele’s work. I have heard NOTHING about this living here. I am going to start asking around and see if anyone else I know in LGBT circles here have heard about this news.

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      The article I read said that the local media refused to cover anything about the theft… Which makes this already shitty situation so unnecessarily worse. Not only do people steal her entire body of work, but the police and media aren’t really doing anything about it at all.

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    This is completely heartbreaking, and it makes me so damn angry that this sort of thing could happen to such a wonderful artist who’s done such amazing and beautiful work. Would you guys any place where I could donate to help her replace her equipment? After all that pain, at the very least she should be able to start over again and continue to make great art.

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    SMH I still believe that if there was the risk of losing ones hand there would be less crimes such as these in the world. Hopefully she is able to recover her stuff.

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    This is so sad! I admit I had never heard of her before, but her work sounds unlike most things out there and extremely important. I really hope the content is recovered. I also hope mainstream media picks up on this, if they don’t it’ll be (unsurprisingly) disappinting.

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    Given that South Africa recognizes same-sex marriages, it is all the stranger that this robbery gets little press attention there. This crime is unfortunate. I have my laptop programmed for daily automatic internet back-ups @ mozy.com

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      South Africa has the unique distinction of having a quite LGB friendly government (I’m not very knowledgable on their stance regarding trans* issues) but a less than welcoming population. There is unfortunately quite a gap between the two.

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    Sadly, the sexual orientation rights clause in the South African Constitution is under threat. So, if you are in SA, here are the details of nationwide protests this weekend http://oblogdeeoblogda.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/south-african-lgbti-coalition-organizes-nartionwide-marches-to-protect-the-constitution/

    The fact that Zanele’s work got stolen must be a huge personal tragedy and we’ve all lost something truly incredible. This really does not look like an ordinary burglary at all. When I read it on Facebook I expected this story to be all over the newspapers, but nothing, only a small article in the Cape Times more than a week later.

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