Queer Visual Activism in Contemporary South Africa

  • Tessa Lewin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This study provides the first detailed analysis of not only the works of contemporary queer visual activists in South Africa but of the networks, both local and global, through which their work is produced, circulated and takes its meaning. Through exploring the ways in which queer visual activists in South Africa move between recognised art institutions and grassroots organisations, building communities and political networks, I develop a nuanced understanding of how queer visual activism operates as a mode of expression in South Africa; one that situates activism beyond the image, performance or artefact.

This project is a study of queer visual activism in contemporary South Africa, based on fieldwork data collected in 2015 and 2016 through participant observation, semistructured, in-depth interviews (on average 1h 25 minutes) with 21 people, (recruited through purposive and snowball sampling techniques), and analysis of their visual practice. Ten of the original sixteen interviewees were also involved in a process of participatory analysis. My analyses focus on the work of FAKA, Robert Hamblin, Selogadi Mampane, Collen Mfazwe, Kate Arthurs, Dean Hutton, Zanele Muholi, Athi Patra-Ruga.

The way in which these queer visual activists create both symbolic and literal value through their practice, troubles the binary emerging in some of the literature on visual activism between ‘protest art’ (as authentic) and art based in institutions (as inauthentic - because of its complicity with global capital). Many of those I interviewed saw not just art institutions, but also commercial advertising spaces, as significant opportunities both to access capital, and to influence public opinion.

My work historicizes the practices of contemporary South African queer visual activists both in relation to art and resistance under apartheid, and in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and visual responses to it across the world. I argue that because visual representations were central to structuring and maintaining the racism and sexism that underpinned colonialism, and later apartheid, the challenging, rejecting, and remaking of these representations, is central to the process of decolonisation.
Date of AwardMay 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorOlu Jenzen (Supervisor), Kath Browne (Supervisor) & Lara Perry (Supervisor)

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