Muzane’s Weblog

Perceptions challanged
August 26, 2009, 5:51 pm
Filed under: Press Articles

by Anthea Buys

Almost as certainly as there will be traffic on Empire Road and brown grass in winter, Johannesburg seems forever fated to produce documentary photographers.
Whether or not they choose to label themselves as such, Jozi’s photographers-in-training and their respective schools have a penchant for the literal, for testimony and for the moralizing potential of the photographic image.

The close relationship between documentary-style photography and fine art galleries in South Africa no doubt has its roots in the struggle era, when some galleries provided a forum for photographic content and photographers who would have battled to find a voice in the mainstream media.  The documentary-style image cannot but raise questions about the context of its display, and today it is doubtful that the conventions of the gallery will always provide the best frame for the photographic expose’, tribute or essay.

Zanele Muholi’s solo exhibition at Brodie/Stevenson, Faces and Phases, illustrates this conundrum.  The body of work is a series of black-and-white portraits concerned with “the commemoration and celebration of black lesbians’ lives” that set out to “challenge” the public’s perceptions of gender identity.  The curatorial statement frames the work of artistic activism, the photographer’s response to “violation, rape and murder of innocents because of their sexualities and ethnicities.” There is no doubt that Muholi has something important – even urgent—to say, but one wonders about the intended effects of her statement on the artsy neo-liberals who tend to frequent Brodie/Stevenson’s openings.

The premise underlying credibility as an artist-activist is that the photographic image validates its subject and, in this instance, that the gallery exhibition automatically gives value to its contents.  Both ideas are highly questionable, but in South Africa at least, they are still the ticket for many photographers to the fine art cattle market we know and love.

Source: Mail & Guardian / July 10-16, 2009 


Transiting with Gabi Ngcobo
August 24, 2009, 9:23 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
July 31, 2009 01:04PMT

 By Obidike Okafor


 The Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Yaba, played host to another interesting guest in the person of South African curator, Gabi Ngcobo. Ngcobo’s talk, titled “Transitions” was centred around African masculinity and the arts from a South African perspective.

In the event, the discourse touched on the inner workings of the Nigerian arts sector; and disturbing issues that lurk in the underbelly, came to fore.

Sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation, the programme began with a click of the projector, as Ngcobo showed pieces by South African artists whose works are concerned with the issues of sexuality, masculinity and identity. With works from Anton Kannemeyer (“Black Dick” (2007)) to Lawrence Lemaoana and Zanele Muholi (who earlier in the year participated in the “Like A Virgin” exhibition held at the CCA).

Ngcobo took the audience through intriguing works like Lemaoana’s “Last Line of Defence,” a digital print that shows five men wearing football uniforms in a line, describing the experience of a black man entering rugby in South Africa, a sport dominated by white men.

In “Fortune Tellers,” the artist’s shows an outline of South African president, Jacob Zuma, in his famous dance stance; tarot card motifs used by fortune tellers are superimposed on the president’s figure. The image is stiched onto an indigenous South African cloth, the Kanga.

The work examines a statement believed to have been made by Zuma during his infamous rape case, to the effect that his accuser wore a Kanga – which he took to mean that she wanted to have sex.

In the case of Zanele Muholi, her decision to take pictures of people with whom she shares a sexual orientation (the gay community) was sparked by the fact that Europeans were interested in South African sexuality and were doing PhDs on the subject. “Faces and Phases” (2007-2008) shows the transition of a lesbian who explores her masculinity. “Miss D’vine” shows pictures of a transsexual -a man dressed up as a woman.

Commenting on MUholi’s collection, Ngcobo said, “In the past when a child is born , you say ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl ‘ – but nowadays you don’t know the sexuality that one chooses as they grow.” The curator believes that since sexuality emerges from the body, the body is the means of communication.

In “Not Butch But My Legs Are” (2005), Muholi focuses on her own hairy legs. Ngcobo was quick to point out that, despite the considerable sexual diversity in South African society, there are still hate crimes against people whose sexual preferences were seen as queer.

They endure social castration and parents disown their children for being gay. Ngcobo also noted that, apart from Tracey Rose and Zanele Muholi, most of the artists whose works formed the focus of the talk, are in their twenties.

Answering a question about the visibility of South African arts, Ngcobo said, “We use to rely on our representation in the West, but with places in Douala, Casablanca and Alexandria, the shift is coming back to Africa.”

Relating the talk to the Nigerian environment, the audience agreed that the country is a very conservative society. The audience -largely made up of artists, art critics and writers -agreed that galleries and the public might not appreciate a focus of challenging sexualities.

Issues raised included: the extent to which galleries determine what the artists produce; the capacity of art to effect change in society; and the fact that artists paint mostly for money.

Artistic director of the CCA, Bisi Silva, was not convinced that there are enough artists creating works that address topical issues. She added that, even when there are artists like that, there are not interesting, diverse material to work with.

“Where are the performance artists, the video artists” she asked. A member of the audience observed that an artist must have overfed and even galleries most have overfed, before any will either paint or sell such works that have a provocative edge, like some of those displayed in ‘Transitions’. Jelili Atiku suggested that “The artist has to survive first. That’s how it is.”

Some artists present complained of an inconducive environment for the exploration of talents. However, Sylvester Ogbechie, a US-based art historian, told the artists, “There are options. There is obviously a significant short sight… You’re neglecting the ability to get out from local to global. You have to take risks.” Continuing, he said, “Nobody takes the artist seriously.

“You have access to do good works.” The lack of an enabling environment, he insisted, “Is not an excuse.”

Ngcobo buttressed the importance of socially relevant art. She added that there was no real visual history of people with an alternative lifestyles in South Africa until Zanele Muholi, a lesbian, began focusing on others like her. In so doing, she has become one of the most important artists in South Africa, all in four short years.

The discussion brought to bear the importance of making art that is relevant, and not just painting a beautiful work. ‘Transitions’ also brought many to the realisation that the time has come for artists to stop finding excuses because the possibilities are endless.

On a lighter note Ngcobo was asked what the South African artists were planning towards World Cup in 2010. She said the organisers were more interested in providing infrastructure, but quickly added that the World Cup presents the opportunity for artists to brand themselves. “It is an opportunity to ask a lot of questions,” she said.




Candid take on life in marginal lane by Zingi Mkefa
August 2, 2009, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Press Articles

2007  Faces & Phases series

2007 Faces & Phases series

Participant: Dikeledi Sibanda

Faces and Phases — A solo exhibition by Zanele Muholi

Where: Brodie/ Stevenson Gallery, 373 Jan Smuts Avenue, Craighall
When: Until August 8

Activist and photographer Zanele Muholi’s world is a little different from the rest of ours. A lesbian who came out of the closet in her 30s, she quickly became a voice for black South African lesbian women who, to this day — despite having the world’s most progressive constitution and despite same-sex marriage being legal — still suffer and die from homophobic violence.

Muholi’s first public show was a solo exhibition in 2007 that depicted, through somewhat garish black-and- white photographs featuring black women with dildos, contraceptive aids and menstrual blood, the reality of what it’s like to be a woman — particularly one who chooses not to be with men (a fact that is central to why some men rape lesbians ).

Chatting shortly before jetting off to Amsterdam for the three-month Thami Mnyele artists-in-residence programme, Muholi reflected on how far her work has come.
“ My approach was a bit easy back then. The way in which I framed the pictures was different. Today, I really try to confront the participants.”

She certainly does. The white cube of space that is the Brodie/Stevenson Gallery is lined by a series of big (roughly 76.5cm x 50.5cm) black-and- white portraits in an exhibition entitled Faces and Phases.

It is evident that Muholi has paid a great deal of attention to composition this time around. The “participants” — who they really are, as opposed to what they do and how different they are to us or how “freaky” they may be — immediately come to the fore.
She does this by drawing attention — whether intentionally or not, I don’t know — to the textures of the faces and clothing.
There’s a lot of detail in the photographs, making for a rich experience. Simply as works of art, let alone statements of activism, I really love them.

Muholi, when not calling them by name, keeps referring to the people in her photographs as “participants”. And, before I get the chance to ask about it she explains, “I keep saying to people I don’t want to call them ‘subjects’ or ‘models’ because I deal with people, who shape me.
“And coming from a history where black people were subjects or objects of science, of anthropologists, of art, I have never liked using those terms. I don’t deal with subjects, I deal with human beings.”

Within her community, Muholi has become something of a celebrity. I spoke to one of the women who features in her exhibition, Apinda Mpako, a writer who also works at Behind The Mask, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) organisation that champions the rights of this community throughout Africa — and of which Muholi is a founding member.
According to Mpako, “Zanele travels a lot for her work and exhibitions. But, whenever she comes back, word spreads fast. Everyone asks, ‘Is she here yet? Is Zanele here? Where is she?’ … Everyone is really proud of her and the work she does. I’m proud of her!”

But despite this excitement, Muholi says that getting people to agree to pose for the camera is still a struggle. “I have to beg and beg and beg. I don’t go up to people like a diva or anything like that. I beg. What I do involves begging and convincing people about what it is I am trying to do.”
She reminds me that the gay movement in South Africa has always been documented by well-placed white men.
And those white men have rarely, if at all, spoken for the black lesbian women whose livelihood is constantly under threat.
So Muholi is continuing her mission to record the lives of women like herself, if for no other reason than to say, “You raped us, you killed us, but you didn’t silence us. We, too, were here.”