Lesbianism in South Africa is a bit like a crazy and eccentric old auntie we tolerate because of the equality clause, and whom we keep at a safe distance, in case people think queerness runs in the family.
The broader political issues about what it means to be a woman who loves women — in theory and in sexual practice — never seem to get a look in because of the feverish curiosity around what lesbians do in bed.
Visual Sexuality takes you there, and it is not a pretty sight. Some images are graphic and raw: a woman strapping on a dildo, a soiled menstrual pad on a white plate, a woman’s thighs with a long scar running down one leg. Other pictures capture moments of intimacy: two women kissing, a woman strapping down her breasts, a moody gangster exhaling a curl of smoke.
“These are not only subjects, these are my people, this describes the person I am,” says Zanele Muholi, a photographer, reporter and activist.
The impetus behind the project, says Muholi, is the desire to get beyond what lesbians do in bed and to confront key issues, such as the lack of ownership gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people feel over their voices, their personal spaces and in the places where they live, learn and work.
The launch of the exhibition two weeks ago at the Johannesburg Art Gallery had a surprisingly good turnout. The 150 or so mostly black, mostly young, very hip people could easily have been mistaken for a hip-hop crowd.
Muholi knows all the women she photographed. Still, the process of negotiating consent was riddled with pitfalls, owing to the oppression many lesbians still face in South Africa.
A photograph entitled Aftermath shows a woman with a scar — the result of a hate crime — down her leg. The picture illustrates what black feminist writer Cheryl Clarke meant when she said: “The woman who takes a woman lover lives dangerously in patriarchy.”
Black lesbians in South Africa are routinely attacked and raped because they are lesbian.
Muholi says HIV/Aids service providers don’t have a clue about lesbian sex and are unable to adequately advise women on ways to protect themselves.
Another of her photographs, titled Safe Sex, shows a woman strapping on a dildo encased in a condom.
Muholi’s insider status as a lesbian activist, and friend to some of the subjects, allows her to document images that at first blush seem to be satisfying the salacious interest in lesbian bedroom antics. Her photographs are not artistically or technically brilliant — and some are downright disturbing, but the exhibition, and the responses to it, show some movement towards addressing the staggering absence of “out and proud” lesbians in South African society. One of Muholi’s intentions was to address the lack of lesbian visibility and the identity confusion that it causes.
A Christian employee of one potential donor replied to Muholi’s application for funding saying: “I will not be associated with anything done against my Christian, natural and African beliefs and non-heterosexual promiscuous promotion of any sort is against God, Africa and nature. So count me out!” She counted herself out by resigning when Muholi used the Constitution’s equality clause to challenge her stance.
The woman’s response provides some clue to what Muholi’s pictures and the issues she is attempting to address are up against. Homophobia is as South African as pap en vleis. Lesbianism is still regarded as a personal decision motivated by sexual deviance.
The controversial nature of Muholi’s images will no doubt enrage the moral majority. But they could be just what’s needed to focus attention on sexuality as an institution, and one that continues to oppress those who do not conform to its narrow paradigms.
Visual Sexuality is a brazen challenge to homophobia and patriarchy. It is an invitation to view the unvarnished expressions of lesbian sexuality and to get a glimpse of the continuous conflict lesbians have with heterosexual ignorance, antagonism and insensitivity. While not exactly a celebration of lesbian sexuality, it does raise the prospect of our society one day seeing the crazy hidden auntie for the outlaw she really is. The moral majority may not like it, but they’ll have to lump it.
Zanele Muholi’s Visual Sexuality is on show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until September 16