Zanele Muholi

South African photographer and activist Zanele Muholi, known for documenting the lives of lesbian women, has been given a prestigious Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award.

On Thursday last week, she was honoured in London in the Arts category “both for her courage and the powerful statements made by her work”.

The ceremony was hosted by Index’s Chair Jonathan Dimbleby who dedicated the evening to, “a celebration of freedom of expression – that fundamental human right to write, blog, tweet, speak out, protest and create art and literature and music”.

Muholi is acclaimed for her striking images that challenge traditional perceptions of the black female body, specifically black lesbians.

Kirsty Hughes, the chief executive of Index, said: “Zanele has shown tremendous bravery in the face of criticism and harassment for ground-breaking images which include intimate portraits of gay women in South Africa, where homosexuality is still taboo and lesbians are the target of horrific hate crimes.”

Remembering two friends who were victims of hate crimes and later succumbed to HIV complications, Muholi dedicated the award “To all the activists, gender activists, visual activists, queer artists; writers, poets, performers, art activists, organic intellectuals who use all art forms of expressions in South Africa”.

She added: “The war is not over till we reach an end to ‘curative rapes’ and brutal killing of black lesbians, gays and transpersons in South Africa.”

Muholi’s work has been exhibited and screened around the world and has won a number of international awards. In 2009 she was the Ida Ely Rubin Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 2010, South Africa’s then Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana famously stormed out of an exhibition featuring Muholi’s photos of lesbian women embracing, describing the images as “pornographic”.

Other winners in the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards included Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head for promoting the right for women’s to be educated, Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis and Syrian internet activist Bassel Khartabil.

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