Queering portraits of “maids” and “madams” in Zanele Muholi’s “Massa” and Mina(h)

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In “Massa” and Mina(h) (2008), Zanele Muholi engages with the alterity of the South African domestic-worker figure by creating a narrative that employs libidinised energy to both transform and rigidify the “maid”/”madam” relationship between her two characters. The art-maker uses her subject matter and her high-artifice photographed performances to present tableaux that, as I discuss, subvert conventions accruing to black female Queer desire in visual and art historical genres. By mediating the mimetic image of a domestic worker through an eroticisation of the uniform worn by and the tasks routinely performed by black women as “maids”, Muholi steps with her Queer subjectivity into her memories of her own mother’s working role as a domestic worker. I focus here on ways in which this series, through its narrative fictions, explores the power dynamics that may emerge in interracial same-sex relationships within the context of South Africa’s traumatic histories. To this end, I employ Queer theoretical tools to position the sexuality presented in the series as a critique of hypocrisies that may appear to exist in heteronormative “race-” and class-bound domestic environments. I examine for instance how Muholi references the Venus pudica pose and the Renaissance trope of including lapdogs in odalisque boudoir paintings in order to unleash their subversive potential. This subversive potential also, I argue, reaches into sadomasochistic tropes to create theatrical and ritualised scenes that foreground through conversion the everyday cultures of power and negotiations of social risk and taboos–without obfuscating its interdependence and intimacies–that foster many of the complexities surrounding experiences of domestic service and its representations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-31
Number of pages16
JournalDe Arte
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Maids and Madams
  • Massa and Mina(h)
  • Queer
  • South African domestic-worker
  • interracial same-sex relationships

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies


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