Muzane’s Weblog

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July 21, 2009, 8:45 pm
Filed under: Press Articles

EXHIBITION: Faces and Phases – Photographer Zanele Muholi’s new photographic exhibition Faces and Phases is a commemoration and a celebration of black lesbians, but it is also an act of visual activism, challenging the current stereotypes and perceptions that exist, writes Annette Bayne

VENUE: Brodie/Stevenson Gallery until August 1

It isn’t surprising that one of the first things photographer Muholi states at the beginning of her walk is that she is a lesbian.

“I want people to understand that this is something that is close to my heart. I am not just a someone going in and taking pictures,” she says.

This series of portraits of lesbian women in ordinary surroundings is Muholi’s ongoing project to document black lesbian women, ensuring a visual narrative of this period, and this subject, exists.

“South Africa has the best constitution in the world and has legalised same sex marriage. I wanted to ensure that we have positive imagery of black lesbians in history,” she says.

“We have fought so many battles in the past and now we are protected by the constitution, so this exhibition is a statement about our existence and resistance.”

Muholi doesn’t see these women as subjects. Many of them are friends or acquaintances, and she describes each of the women as a collaborator in the photographic process.

The women, often stylishly dressed, look proudly at the camera, their eyes in sharp focus. Those eyes, energised and alive, are one of the most powerful aspects of this exhibition.

They look at you with an intensity that dares you to look away and, in looking, you have to see them and acknowledge, without judging, who they are, what they face and the choices they make.

Described by Muholi as the most marginalised group in SA, black lesbians face many of the same problems heterosexual women face, but stigma and the lack of information and understanding means that these problems are poorly tackled by the community, health practitioners and law enforcers.

Besides being ostracised from their communities and often their families, black lesbian women also face the dangers of “lesbophobic” attacks and “curative” rape and many have been murdered or died from HIV/Aids.


What does it mean to be an African lesbian?
July 17, 2009, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Press Articles

Written by Sokari Ekine

In her many works, South African photo activist Zanele Mutholi explores the meaning of being a same-gender-loving woman in Africa. Zanele’s photographic work challenges the many stereotypes of African womanhood, femininity, masculinity and victimhood often displayed by the media both on the continent and abroad. At the same time she allows herself – and us – to celebrate not just our bodies but what they do and give to us.


tripytch, 2007 from Being series

The women Zanele photographs are those she meets face to face in her community of lesbians in the townships of South Africa – Alexandria, Soweto, Vosloorus, Katlehong and Kagiso. In the series of photographs Faces and Phases she focuses on the face as an expression of the self whilst the phases are the stages and identities ‘which unfold in parallel in our existence’.

‘Individuals in this series of photographs hold different positions and play many different roles within the black lesbian community: soccer player, actress, scholar, cultural activist, lawyer, dancer, film maker, human rights/gender activist. However, each time we are represented by outsiders, we are merely seen as victims of rape and homophobia.’

The essence of each of the women is captured through their faces, which together with stance and clothing are expressions of their sexuality. The photos (both this exhibition and others by Zanele ) give an insight into how we create meaning of ourselves and the world around us, the feelings from inside which drive us to being who we are. I can’t express where these feelings come from, I just know they are deep inside and the only relief is to let them out by expressing them physically and emotionally. When those meanings – attitudes, beliefs, expectations, dreams, everything that is YOU – challenge patriarchy and social mores they become stigmatized and hold painful consequences for those who dare to release their inner selves. In such hostile environments, coming out is an act of resistance, and creating meaning through community is a further act of resistance and also one of survival.

Zanele mentions the pain and the joy behind some of the women:

‘From an insider’s perspective, this project is meant as a commemoration and a celebration of the lives of black lesbians that I met in my journeys through the townships. Lives and narratives are told with both pain and joy, as some of these women were going through hardships in their lives. Their stories caused me sleepless nights as I did not know how to deal with the urgent needs I was told about.’

The pain of being violated by men as well as of being ostracized from family and community leave many African lesbians dislocated, with feelings of unbelonging and guilt leading to depression and low self-esteem and to more violations of self and partners. But there is also joy. The joy of being oneself and living within the body and mind that is comfortable and is you. Of standing up and making the declaration that this is who I am no matter what. The joy of loving and being loved by lovers and friends. But it remains a daily struggle as homophobia follows you around like a shadow in the fading light.

And the tentacles of homophobia reach across the Sahara and Mediterranean to engulf you in the Diaspora. Many African lesbians living in the West, which is not an easy choice in itself, find themselves living in isolation. The need to be part of our nation in exile conflicts with the need to be our lesbian selves. Do you become anonymous or resign yourself to forced heterosexuality, denial and deep depression? Far from home the loss of family, community and religious affiliation is exacerbated. For those who do not have papers there is the additional stress of being found by the police and immigration authorities and having to fight for survival on multiple fronts. To get a job and send money home; to be out; to hide your immigration status; to disappear and become invisible in all aspects of your life.

Zanele describes her photographic work as ‘visual activism’ and a way to ‘mark resistance and existence as black lesbians in our country, because it is important to put a face on each and every issue’.
This article was first published in the new internationalist blog. All photographs are by Zanele Muholi. You can view more here .


Sokari Ekine

About the author:

Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian social justice activist and blogger. She writes an award winning blog, Black Looks,
which she setup over four years ago, writing on a range of topics such as LGBTI Rights in Africa, gender issues, human rights, the Niger Delta and Land Rights.


Provocative images that push the boundaries
July 17, 2009, 12:00 am
Filed under: Press Articles

by Edward Tsumele

SHE has loomed large in Johannesburg’s thriving underground culture. For a long time she looked as if she was a struggling arty type.

zanele's portrait

zanele's portrait

But struggling artist she certainly is not.
And if ever she struggled, it must have been a long time ago, because she is now one of SA’s busiest, innovative and creative documentary photographers.
She also evokes great curiosity among those who don’t know her.
She is bold and straight-talking and has never hidden her sexual orientation, both personally and through her photography. In fact, she has deliberately focused on lesbian sexuality.

Meet multi-award winning photographer Zanele Muholi, whose exhibition of black-and- white photography is now on at the Brodie Stevenson Gallery, north of Johannesburg.

All the subjects of her photography are black lesbian women who have been captured in provocative poses.
These meticulously selected photographs have a story to tell and the message might not sit well with some , particularly conservative types.

Some of the women are half- dressed and others are dressed, or even overdressed in earrings, ties and hats often worn at rakish angles. Most have their heads shaved. .  You do not have to be told who these people are. Their postures are as bold as their creator, Muholi..
They are loud, shouting for your attention and are unashamedly provocative, eliciting various comments and reactions from the audience, whether gay or straight.
The subjects of her photography are curiously exclusively black, and this appears to have been a conscious decision.
The exhibition pushes the boundaries in terms of what is tolerated and accepted in society.

Muholi deals with the politics of visibility, according to her mentor and Market Photo Workshop director John Fleetwood where Muholi was taught photography.
The lesbians are from London, Toronto, Alexandra, Soweto, Gugulethu and other townships, to demonstrate that lesbians are found on every corner of the globe, even black lesbians.

But in trying to bring this fact home, the photographer has perhaps represented her subjects narrowly.
For example, if she wanted to show that lesbianism is universal she should have perhaps demonstrated this by showing lesbians of different professions and even different faiths .
This could have pushed the boundaries even further, and would have also proved her point.

This could also have gone a long way to cool the bigotry and outbursts of anger and violence often directed at lesbians by conservative society.
Failing to expand the scope of representation widely, she inadvertently seems to have committed the crime of omission, coincidentally the same crime bigots are often accused of.