Vital Art Project

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VITAL ART: Transgender portraiture as visual activism

Zanele Muholi.

Zanele Muholi Mini Mbatha, Beulahs Series, Glebelands, Durban, Jan. 2010

The project has been funded by the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO- VENI scheme) for 2014-2018.

Short summary

While many people are familiar with the term transgender, knowledge is lacking about how transgender people experience and respond to social stigma. Through studying visual activism, and the media landscape in which cultural activists struggle, I will highlight the strategic role of portraiture in addressing discrimination.

The three-year funded project primarily focuses on the collaborative portraiture practices of Elisha Lim (Singapore/Canada), J. Jackie Baier (Germany), and Zanele Muholi (South Africa), while also referring to the important works of micha cárdenas (Mexico/US), Raven Davis (Canada), Gabrielle LaRoux (South Africa), and Yishay Garbasz (Israel/Germany) amongst others.



The VITAL ART research project was initiated with two articles on the work of Heather Cassils (Canada/US) and Del LaGrace Volcano (US/UK/Sweden). A number of my 2015-upcoming articles are also related to the project; they are published in collected volumes on feminist and queer art practices, new directions in transgender studies, queer dramaturgies, posthumanism, etc.


Project abstract

The Transgender Murder Monitoring Project’s tracking of news reports in 60 countries provides statistical evidence of endemic discrimination, including an alarming number of minors killed in 2012-2013. A large-scale survey by Trans Media Watch shows that the lack of ethical media coverage given to transgender lives and deaths can directly contribute to hostilities. Quantitative approaches to studying transphobic violence are important responses to signaling the extent of the problem. However, they are unable to provide the necessary insight into the qualitative experiences of lived or mediated stigma.


J. Jackie Baier Miriam auf der Bülowstraße, Berlin, 2006

The goal of this project is to produce three key studies of transgender visual activism that address experiences of stigma and critique mass media portrayals. Located in visual studies and using theories of gender and representation, this study is the first to create an interpretative framework for a socially embedded analysis of transgender cultural productions. I concentrate on contemporary visual art portraits rendered by drawing, painting, photography and sculpture. Because the genre of portraiture foregrounds a subject’s personal experience and seeks to establish identity visually it is a privileged form for addressing stigmatized identities. My methodology is concept-based: it uses the interdisciplinary category of “portraiture” to bridge different objects of study: artistic portraits, media representations, and ethnographic studies of artists. My objective is to investigate how and to what effect these forms of portraiture yield archives of transgender experience.

By means of visual and discourse analysis, I map recurring patterns of portraying transgender individuals in and across news reports and visual art. Interviewing key visual activists amplifies their voiced experiences in ethnographic research portraits.


Elisha Lim The Illustrated Gentleman, Wall Calendar, 2011

The outcomes include 1) a monograph illuminating the role of visual art in minority power struggles, 2) an international symposium on visual arts and activism, 3) a journalist tool-kit for positively shaping public opinion about gender diversity through media platforms.

external-link-icon Official NWO press release

external-link-icon Official NWO results