While 19th-century Paris, 1980s New York, and Johannesburg in 2007 may seem worlds apart, each of the featured artists has challenged the constraining societal structures of their time. The paintings of Rosa Bonheur (she/her) were wildly popular among traditional society of the 1800s in Europe and America, but her life and success were well outside the societal norms for women at the time. Nan Goldin (she/her) used photography to create deeply personal portraits of New York City’s subcultures in the 1980s. Zanele Muholi (they/them) advocates for equality and human rights for the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa through their intimate photographs.
South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, yet members of the LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) communities still face hate crime-related violence. That same year, Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, Umlazi, South Africa) began taking black-and-white photographs of individuals in response to the lack of visual documentation of the South African LGBTQIA+ communities.
I prefer to be a visual activist because most of the issues that I try to deal with in my work, they deal with human rights…so visual activism is basically dealing with a political agenda and using visuals as a means of articulation.
Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007) by Zanele MuholiNational Museum of Women in the Arts
Explore Zanele Muholi's photograph, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007).
Assistant Curator Orin Zahra discusses Zanele Muholi
This portrait by Muholi of two women from Lakeside, Johannesburg expresses a sense of enchantment and happiness, defying the discrimination and violence often directed towards homosexuality in South Africa.
By capturing this couple in moments of intimacy and affection, Muholi emphasizes their humanity.
Nan Goldin (b. 1953, Washington, D.C.) came of age as a documentarian, photographing the lives and loves of her circle of friends in the city’s art, gay, and cross-dressing communities while studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Moving to New York after graduation, she has continued to create over 800 grainy, hard- and soft-focus images chronicling her involvement among the city’s subcultures.
Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian (1983) by Nan GoldinNational Museum of Women in the Arts
Self-portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC (1983) is part of Nan Goldin’s epic work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981-96). Comprising hundreds of photographs, it documents Goldin and her friends’ bohemian lives in downtown New York City.
Goldin’s photographs of her community in the intimate spaces of their homes and hangouts are gritty and unsparing. With uneven lighting and focus, her photographs have the feel of on-the-run documentary works. Yet, her subjects are highly personal.
People take [snapshots] out of love, and they take them to remember—people, places, and times. They’re about creating a history by recording a history. And that’s exactly what my work is about.
In a time when the idea of a woman walking into a restaurant unchaperoned was scandalous, Rosa Bonheur (b. 1822, Bordeaux, France; d. 1899, Thomery, France) forged her own path and built a life that did not fit within the boundaries of societal norms. When her artistic practice required her to wear men’s clothing, she applied for a “cross-dressing” permit from the Prefecture of Police to avoid being arrested for wearing pants.
Today, Bonheur is considered a queer icon and has served as a role model for generations of women artists.
Why shouldn’t I be proud to be a woman? My father, that enthusiastic apostle of humanity, told me again and again that it was woman’s mission to improve the human race…To his doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong, whose independence I’ll defend till my dying day. Besides, I’m convinced the future is ours.
Highland Raid (1860/1860) by Rosa BonheurNational Museum of Women in the Arts
While unconventional in her ambitions and personal conduct, Bonheur was trained in traditional working methods. She studied her subjects carefully and produced many preparatory sketches before she applied paint to canvas as demonstrated in Bonheur's Highland Raid (1860).
It was in the gritty butcher shops and slaughterhouses of Paris that Bonheur closely studied animal anatomy to prepare for her paintings.
Assistant Curator Orin Zahra discusses Rosa Bonheur
Highland Raid epitomizes the artist’s ability to capture the raw spirit of animals, such as these bulls and sheep whose thick woolly coats are typical of Highland livestock. The popularity of Bonheur’s work has made her one of the most successful artists of the 19th century.