JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It was a most unusual burglary. Thieves got in through the bathroom window and walked past the flat-screen TV, DVD player, expensive camera and a couple of brand-new cellphones. Instead, they took 20 external hard drives and some digital camera memory cards.
It didn't make sense to Zanele Muholi, an art photographer and activist, the victim of the April theft.
Something cold shifted inside her. Could this be another hate crime against lesbians?
The stolen hard drives, all hidden in different locations around her apartment, were the archive of five years of Muholi's extraordinary work photographing marginalized lesbians in many African countries.
"Seemingly they spent some time searching," Muholi says in a phone interview. "It seemed to be targeted. The content is a major part of my life."
Muholi, a lesbian whose work has been called "immoral" by a government minister, is convinced the theft was designed to suppress her "visual activism," as she calls it.
The 39-year-old is the only black South African artist selected to exhibit her work at the recent Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany, an exhibition featuring hundreds of international artists that is put on every five years. (The other South African chosen was prominent artist William Kentridge.)
Her work on lesbianism and womanhood confronts traditional patriarchal notions of African masculinity and is often perceived as threatening to men in the townships where her subjects live.
Muholi's five years of lost work is a unique record of the lives of black lesbians forced to live underground, in fear of being attacked for being "unnatural" or "un-African," stoned, beaten, even burned. Her photographs celebrate the love and life of black lesbians — and mourn the dead. Muholi documented the funeral of Noxolo Nogwaza, a lesbian raped and killed last year in Kwa-Thema, a township outside Johannesburg.
There's an epidemic of rapes of lesbians in South Africa, disturbingly dubbed "corrective rape," because a victim is told it is to teach her to be a "real woman." Beatings of lesbians, gays and transgender people are commonplace.
The attacks are a blight on South Africa's Constitution, a document that enshrines the right to same-sex marriage, but whose protection for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender is opposed by African traditionalists and fundamental Christians.
Richard Lee of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, an African nongovernmental organization promoting democracy, human rights and good governance, compares the loss of Muholi's work to the theft of a Picasso in Europe.
"There should have been a huge outcry by now. Government ministers and artists and academics and journalists should be shouting from their pulpits, because a unique part of South Africa's cultural heritage was stolen…," Lee writes on the organization's blog. "No one else has taken photos like this. No one else has documented this community with so much understanding and so much force and so much beauty."
After the robbery, Muholi's state is akin to mourning.
If you ask her how she is, she responds, heavily, "It's another day." She lies awake at night, and this or that beautiful image captured during her travels around Africa spins into her head.
"There were pivotal moments that I shared with people. I can't go back to those spaces.
"I am so shocked and traumatized and hurting."
But under the grief, the knowledge that someone has been in her apartment also leaves its trace of fear, given the violent homophobia common in South Africa.
"I don't feel comfortable in my apartment. I might be in danger. You never know when your time will come." Known for her courage, Muholi almost cringes, because she feels as if that's been stolen too. "I used to be brave. Now, I'm weak and I am scared."
Muholi's work has always been intensely political and confrontational. Even the white T-shirt she sometimes wears showing two black women kissing is enough to enrage many South Africans.
She says her motive in photographing lesbians is to give faces and voices to the disempowered communities in Africa, and support victims of hate crimes.
"We have to support them, because you never know, I might be next," she says. Among the stolen images were photographs taken at the funerals of lesbians gang-raped and slain because of their sexual orientation, or who killed themselves in despair.
In 2010, South Africa's then-minister for arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana, who was supposed to speak at an exhibition featuring Muholi's work, walked out, calling the images of black lesbians embracing "immoral, offensive and going against nation-building." Xingwana has since been promoted by the overtly traditionalist president, Jacob Zuma, to minister for women, children and people with disabilities.
Since the Xingwana walkout, South Africa's artistic freedom has come under pressure from politicians more than once, with the ANC calling for a debate on the limits of artistic freedom. In recent weeks, South Africa was convulsed by its fiercest debate on artistic freedom, after a male artist depicted Zuma (a polygamist with more than 20 children) with genitals exposed in a painting called "The Spear."
Supporters have set up a campaign to replace Muholi's equipment. But even if they did manage to raise the money, it wouldn't bring back the lost photographs. And even if she could retrace her steps in the different African countries, she wouldn't find the same images.
"Even if somebody sent me back there," she says, "I would not be able to capture those moments."