South Africa’s liberal constitution dates back to 1996 when “South Africa became the first and only country in the world to explicitly incorporate the rights of lesbians and gay men into its constitution by prohibiting, among other things, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation” (Gunkel 2009:3) and, while on paper, these words appear progressive when compared to other parts of the world where lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people suffer persecution, South Africa nonetheless remains a dangerous place for the LGBTI in an overwhelmingly hetero-normative society. This is borne out by the many violent crimes that have been perpetrated against those who are LGBTI, and perhaps especially the homophobic rape of black lesbians (Gunkel 2009:5).
Furthermore, when Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana (Cape Times, 2010) walked out of an exhibition where Zanele Muholi’s work, which illustrates black lesbians within an intimate setting, was being displayed, saying: “Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation-building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this. It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building”, she sent a public message that echoed the nation’s entrenched homophobia among more conservative elements. Xingwana’s personal opinion stands in direct contradiction with the values laid down within the South African Constitution. That an individual, such as she, who maintains a socially influential position, could perpetuate such sentiments, illustrates the dichotomy between that which is prescribed and what is, ultimately, practised. It is within this context that photographer and visual activist Muholi’s artwork emerges, further explained when Makhubu writes: “The targeting of gay and lesbian individuals in townships is reflective of the aggressive denial of female power. Curative rape that is meant to ‘set [lesbians] straight’ shows that in society, lesbian women, gay men and transgender individuals are a threat to generally accepted yet iniquitous social constitutions (Makhubu 2012:521).
A selection of Muholi’s work on her page at Artsy, reveals a majority of black-and-white portraits of mostly black lesbians and individuals whose gender identity can be viewed as ambiguous, openly blending male and female attributes (Artsy 2015). Some, like the triptych Caitlin and I, Boston, USA, 2009 are in full colour. In most cases, focus is on the individual, with a simple or even abstract background. Where the subjects’ faces are visible, they are often staring directly, boldly towards the viewer, as if suggesting that they are present, undeniable, and very much part of society. Muholi herself states: “...it struck me that our struggle was in a way operating within a void, if people don’t see you, and by this I mean if they don’t connect to your personhood, they can easily violate you or look the other way if they are witnesses to violence against you” (Dlungwana 2015) and in that very manner, Muholi’s work aims to make visible that which has until quite recently, been considered taboo. Laws notwithstanding, a visual activist such as Muholi is a contributor in the on-going struggle to destigmatise and normalise the relationships and states of being of LGBTI people, to establish a shared narrative. In her work, as visual activist, Muholi stresses the importance of community, of collaboration: “Obviously, in telling any story you can’t just be the star of the tale, other people feature and their contribution and their own stories become part of the whole narrative, and so capturing images of lesbian and transgender men and women in South Africa as well as other parts of the continent and the Diaspora was an organic and practical development. You never act alone, not with things this important, you need community” (Dlungwana 2015).
Functions of photographs, for instance Caitlin and I, Boston, USA, 2009, serve to normalise LGBTI relationships within the public eye, especially within the context of a fine art gallery. We are faced with an image of two women who are intimately involved or who are, at least, at ease enough in each other’s presence to be naked, exposed. Commentary is not only delivered within the framework of gender, but also of race, of the coming together of black and white in a community post-apartheid and recovering from its restrictions on the mingling of different races. These women are free to love as they desire, and by their confidence jointly challenge anyone who would suggest otherwise. Their poses are relaxed, their expressions watchful, as if suggesting that they are comfortable being who they are and, as Muholi states, “people are seeing us, they are acknowledging that we exist, that we have a voice and will not be silenced and erased without a care” (Dlungwana 2015).
There is a frankness about Muholi’s work when viewing not only the postures of her subjects, but also in the way that she titles her photographs. Often, names are given and, as stated by Makhubu, “this provision of personal details asserts fearlessness, as if to declare: we are here, we are your neighbours, friends, your sons and daughters, your mentors and we will not budge – a sentiment that seems to permeate Muholi’s body of work” (Makhubu 2012:516). This removal of stigma, places the LGBTI individuals back in society, makes them an undeniable part of a community and family. Though atrocities have been committed against Muholi’s subjects, her work returns their dignity and works towards establishing a new legacy, a body of work that infiltrates the hetero-normative media that stands in contrast the assumption that “the stigmatising of queer sexuality is entwined with the assumption that people who are lesbian or gay are actually anatomically distinct” (Baderoon 2011, p. 391).
Muzi Khumalo IV, 2010, depicts a black youth who unashamedly makes eye contact with the viewer, staring directly at the lens. Careful grooming of his hair and the subtle use of make-up suggest the assimilation of traditionally feminine style. This blurring of the edges of traditional gender roles also suggests a fluidity of expression, and forces the viewer to ask, “Just what makes someone male/female?” Is it the clothes we wear? How we groom ourselves? By setting these blended expressions of presentations, we are no longer bound to tradition.
How viewers interpret Muholi’s work says much about their stances, as can be deduced from Xingwana’s response; however even such statements can open the door for further dialogue related to the subject. If a person feels discomforted by an image; if a person is forced to examine self to unpack why it is that an image causes a strong response, then Muholi has succeeded in her intention of initiating this discussion between the subject, who has allowed the photograph to be taken, and the viewer, who has entered the environment where the photograph has been displayed. In a sense, the photograph creates an unthreatening space in which this discussion can take place by this degree of separation. The photograph itself should also be viewed in a sense as a time capsule, a snapshot of a particular moment; and by equal measure its socio-historic context should be borne in mind while it is being viewed. Understandably, as time passes, and a larger body of works grows – and perhaps even references the work Muholi has accumulated – we may still see a shift in perception where LGBTI relationships have been normalised, where being presented with an interracial relationship in unabashed and honest nakedness will no longer result in a defamiliarisation for the viewer. Yet this can only occur if pioneering individuals such as Muholi create a visual foundation upon which others can build.
Baderoon, G. 2011. “Gender within gender”: Zanele Muholi’s images of trans being and becoming. Feminist studies 37(2), Summer:390-416
Cape Times. Arts minister in lesbian art photo furore. IOL. n.p. 2010. September 10, 2015. <http://www.iol.co.za/lifestyle/arts-minister-in-lesbian-art-photo-furore-1.979074#.VfFjjyK0umx>
Dlungwana, P. Interview with Zanele Muholi. C&. n.p. 2015. September 10, 2015. <http://www.contemporaryand.com/blog/magazines/im-an-activist-first-being-a-photographer-allows-me-a-greater-and-more-influential-audience/>
Gunkel, H. 2009. Through the postcolonial eyes: images of gender and female sexuality in contemporary South Africa. Journal of Lesbian Studies. 13(1):77-87
Makhubu, N. 2012. Violence and the cultural logistics of pain: representations of sexuality in the work of Nicholas Hlobo and Zanele Muholi. Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies 25(4):504-524.
Zanele Muholi. Artsy. n.p. 2015. September 10, 2015. <https://www.artsy.net/artist/zanele-muholi/works>