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 


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.”


See us now
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.