Muzane’s Weblog

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.”



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