Sunday, June 8, 2014

Zanele Muholi / Lesbian in Sout Africa must be seen as more than just victims

Photo by Zanele Muholi

“Lesbians in South Africa 

must be seen as more than just victims”

Zanele Muholi, photographer and lesbian activist

22 / 04 / 2010

Zanele Muholi (Umlazi, 1972) is a black and lesbian woman.
Her work as a photographer shows the lives of diverse lesbians in South Africa,
a group who suffers the disgrace of the "corrective" rapes.
However, women in her pictures are not just victims:
they are strong, loving, beautiful and empowered. 
She has worked for the Forum for the Empowerment of Women,
a black women's organization in Gauteng, and also for Behind the mask,
a LGTB african magazine.

What could you tell me about lesbian black women in South Africa?
I’d like to say that black lesbians in South Africa are women too.  They have functions and responsibilities that all women have.  They bleed just like any being, are capable of caring, loving, protecting, feeling (with all six senses), procreating, mourning and educating/mentoring other beings amongst other things.   Homophobes choose to see us through their perceptions of us being social deviants who have loose morals.  In reality we are loving beings who are grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, cousins, lovers and guardians to our siblings/ relatives too.  It is important that we are also seen as more than just victims or survivors of hate crimes to a point where it just becomes a cliché   Inasmuch as we encounter many challenges, we are still capable of playing other roles as most of us hold varied positions in our communities.
Could you please speak about your work, your pictures…?
As an insider within the lesbian community the work that I do is at once a self -reflection as well as a representation of me and others. The photographs that I create are about our lives, not my life only – our lives. Intimacy and relationships are imperative in my photography. I see the projects that I produce as more than just mine – I am just the vehicle in bringing them forth.  Every woman that has known the experience of feeling/exploring another woman’s body will understand the meaning of how much she has contributed to the lives of many of those who cannot freely express themselves in their places/locations.  The work is about our ‘herstory’, intertwining the present and the past.  The people in the photographs have a full understanding of who they are and how they became the persons they are right now.  It is those identities and sometimes complexities which affirms our beings. In most projects I capture a woman’s body because to me it is form, an ART, a material, an aesthetic, a landscape and a teacher.  My photography is about love, life, pain, loss and all that we learn throughout our various journeys as women who are in love with other women in this lifetime.  It is also a reference to inform, educate, and also share our black lesbian culture and most importantly to entertain those who have the same feelings.

Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta I, 2007. Zanele Muholi. ©

What would you like to express through your art?
Although my art is open to interpretation, I aim to express and share some of the daily experiences that we encounter as black lesbians in our spaces. For example, issues of gender, sexuality, class are evident in some of my projects even though others speak of likenesses/equality.  Body politics – by looking at skin as a material and a form is my other focus. Although our common sexuality keeps us together, we are still different.
Art is a political and civil instrument of change?
That is true on both accounts.  Its universality can be understood across borders because art knows no borders, identity, gender, sexuality, race or class.  It is easy to access and the viewer has a right to create his/ her own interpretation.  Art purity makes it innocent and viable especially if seen with a queer eye.
The public and the personal is sometimes the same thing… don’t you think??
I would kind opt out of answering right now as this statement, to me, needs thorough processing.

Why it is called “Faces and Phases”?
In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond.  I show our aesthetics through portraiture. Historically, portraits serve as memorable records for lovers, family and friends.
Faces expresses the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another. Faces is also about the face-to-face confrontation between myself as the photographer/activist/lesbian and the many lesbians, women and transmen I have interacted with from different places.
Phases articulates the collective pain we as a community experience due to the loss of friends and acquaintances through disease and hate crimes and some of those who participated in this visual project have already passed away.
If you want to get a deeper sense of Faces and Phases you may read my artist statement at

Photo by Zanele Muholi

People said that your work is controversial…
Such conclusions are drawn by those who have misconceptions and lack knowledge of identity politics.
I don’t see anything controversial about re/writing or re-representing a visual history of black lesbians in South Africa or beyond.  It is our responsibility to document our own lives before our voices are further silenced, or before someone speaks on our behalf.  You can see that different forms of violence especially ‘curative rape’ and murders of lesbians are used as a tool to oppress us.  Unless people want to say we don’t exist, then we have a mandate to project ourselves as we are.  I really see the statement that my work as controversial, as hate speech.  I feel like they will be aiming to silence my form of expression which is the photography that I produce at this stage.
Difficult Love is a documentary about love, about violence, about fight.
The documentary is about love, pain, loss, displacement, activism, poverty, being homeless, being in interracial affairs, home, family settings, belonging, hate crimes, class and how others articulate different standards of living. All that said is what leads to culmination of projects.   Difficult Love is about peoples’ lives and how they relate on influence the work that I do.
You also get to see how peoples’ lives affect me thereafter.  You will hear the participants’ oral testimonies and how others learn to overcome their challenges and daily struggles. Some people will take time to heal from what they have experienced for example the survivor of hate crime.
The documentary, which was commissioned by South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in 2010 is about profiling one’s life.  As a photographer who deals with delicate subject matters that focus on the lives of an oppressed community, we were given an opportunity to project for national television.  Even though the flight date has not yet been confirmed by the broadcaster, we have managed to screen it in various places.  Other film festival programmers have requested to screen it in their own platforms.  The piece is also about our realities as queer people and how we connect with the landscape that we occupy and the relationships that we establish and maintain in our work.   My photographic projects that I embark on are about the participants’ influence in my life and projects that I produce are clearly presented. Different dynamics are shown, you see when I learn and reflect from others’ experiences.

Photo by Zanele Muh

What is behind the terrible violence against women?
All the phobias that lead to queercides are queerphobia, xenophobia and transphobia.  It is pure madness that makes men violate women as they see fit.  It’s their way of oppressing the vulnerable beings. Some men see lesbians as a threat and don’t understand how two women can love each other or how a woman can choose a woman over them – a man because they feel that only they have the right to a woman’s nether region.  The lawless society where seemingly there is lack of justice that dominates women becomes another problem.  It hurts!
From a feminist point of view, do you think the movement has forgotten the black lesbians?
Not really.  In South Africa various organisations have come together and formed alliances to fight many forms of violations – especially gender based violence. There are organisations that are not about gay issues but denounce hate crimes such as ‘corrective rape’, queerphobia, transphobia and xenophobia. I am however talking about accessible spaces where one can get the opportunity to attend and document some events.  That is how I see it.
I would like to listen your point of view… feel free to say whatever you want.. even if I have not asked about it!!
I’d like to say that one cannot stop doing these projects (radical art projects/ photography) until it is over.
If our fellow people managed to fight the apartheid system, I guess they can also fight all forms of discrimination and oppressions that aim to silence/displace/degrade/undermine our human rights of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex (LGBTI) people in Africa and beyond.

No comments:

Post a Comment