Queer Theory

Jasmine Clarke

Zanele Muholi, Aftermath, 2004. Silver gelatin print,

Figure 1. Zanele Muholi, Aftermath, 2004. Silver gelatin print.

Queer theory emerged in the early 1990s, from the fields of queer studies and women’s studies. It involves a sustained critical analysis of the idea that gender is part of the fundamental self and an evaluation of the socially constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. Queer theory is not limited to the study of sexual identities, however. It also focuses on the relationships between sex, gender, and desire that are associated with bi-sexual, lesbian, and gay individuals. Queer theory can also include topics of cross-dressing, intersex, gender ambiguity, and gender corrective-surgery. It represents a shift in the study of sexuality from a focus on essentialist categories such as, “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual,” to a more fluid or “queer” notion of sexual identity.1

Although originally used as a pejorative label, “queer” has been reclaimed by members of the LGBT community as an umbrella term so that its members may self-identify as being outside sexual and/or gender-based norms. In Queer Theory: An Introduction (1996), Annamarie Jagose argues that queer theory’s challenge is to “create new ways of thinking, not only about fixed identities such as heterosexual and homosexual, but also about other supposedly essential notions such as “sexuality” and “gender” and even “man” and “woman.”2 Queer theory seeks to expand the boundaries of identity categories in order to dismantle the distinctions between various forms of marginalized sexual identities.3

Queer culture has been represented by artists throughout different art historical periods. Some artists have taken up the concept of queerness as a subject position more expansive than either “gay” or “lesbian,” while others have embraced queerness to open up virtual networks of expression and to formulate new cultural and aesthetic alliances.4 Depending on the context, queerness can either be an accepted identity that underlies artistic production or a route through which to protest against the normalization of gay and lesbian culture.5 These artists are protesting against the limitations of strictly gay and lesbian culture that isn’t inclusive of subjects who identity on the spectrum of queer. It is not a protest to disempower gays and lesbians but instead expand boundaries to accommodate and include subjects who are underrepresented in an attempt create a more inclusive and powerful community.

Zanele Muholi is an artist and activist whose primary concern, in her own words, is to “present positive imagery of Black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond.”6 South Africa is a dangerous country for individuals who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender. Muholi captures the unique stories of her subjects in black and white photographs to educate international viewers, to influence South African policy, and to inspire others to share their stories and experiences. She describes her work as “visual activism.”7 Muholi is aware that queer politics and theory might be too complex for some people to understand, but she believes that photography, as a mode of expressing humanity, will help simplify these concepts for her audiences.8

Aftermath (2004) is a black and white image depicting a woman’s lower torso, thighs (one of which has a long scar on it) and knees [Figure 1]. The woman wears underwear with a visible “Jockey” logo, something traditionally reserved and worn by men. This could be an indication of many things including that the individual self-identifies as a lesbian, transgender, or queer. Muholi frames the photograph in a way that brings the viewer attention to the scar that running vertically on the woman’s right thigh, which implies multiple metaphors.  Andrew Van Der Vlies, in his article “Queer Knowledge and the Politics of the Gaze in Contemporary South African Photograph,” states that the scar is like an orifice that has been sewn up – just as the woman is blocking another orifice (her genitals) with her hands.9 This gesture has been interpreted in many different ways. As Henriette Gunkel suggests, “the gesture of the hands offers a reference to the violated lesbian body that uncompromisingly creates a sense of accusation, of vulnerability, agency, intimacy, discomfort, pain and anger.’”10

The title, Aftermath, suggests that the woman has endured trauma, and that something has been overcome. However, even though Muholi depicts a female victim, her subject is not made vulnerable to the powerful gaze of the viewer since we do not see her genitalia, breasts, or  face. Muholi demonstrates respect for her subject’s privacy. Van Der Viles states, “She is an individual whose dignity is respected, whose privacy is restored, whose experience is recorded – and whose scars can be read also as standing for the scars of others.”11 Muholi’s photography is an attempt to empower lesbian subjects. Pumla Gqola argues that “Muholi’s work is less about making black lesbians visible than it is about engaging with the regimes that have used these women’s hypervisibility as a way to violate them.”12 It can be argued that Muholi is concerned with returning the power and privacy that was stolen from her subjects, allowing them to be the subjects and in control of their own gaze.13

As Muholi told The Cape Times, “I’ve dedicated my entire life to documenting queer lives. I wanted to make sure I document [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] lives.”14Muholi uses work like Aftermath to share the unique stories of her subjects, but also as visual protests against the discrimination, and violence these individuals are subjected to in South Africa. Her black and white images force viewers to not only think about the the ways in which queer women are treated in South Africa but also challenge viewers to expand how they think about sexual and gender identity, as well as queer culture.


  1. Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 1996), back page.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, 101.
  4. Richard Meyer and Catherine Lord, Art and Queer Culture (New York: Phaidon Press, 2013), 187.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Andrew Van Der Vlies, “Art as Archive: Queer Activism and Contemporary South African Visual Cultures,” Kunapipi 34 (2012), 93.
  7. Zenele Muholi, “South African Photography, Highlights Lesbians, Transgender Women.” Last modified March 19, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/18/zanele-muholi-south-africa-photography_n_2900099.html.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Andrew Van Der Vlies, “Queer Knowledge and the Politics of the Gaze in Contemporary South African Photography: Zanele Muholi and Others,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 24:2 (2012), 144.
  10. Ibid, 146.
  11. Ibid., 144.
  12. Ibid., 147.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid, 152.