A South African government minister walked out of an exhibition because it featured photographs of nude lesbian couples that she found “immoral” and “against nation-building”.
Lulu Xingwana had been due to speak at the opening of a show by young black women artists at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.
But she left prematurely after viewing pictures of naked women embracing intimately by lesbian artist and activist Zanele Muholi.
Xingwana said: “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.”
Her spokesperson, Lisa Combrinck, told the Times: “Minister Xingwana was also concerned that there were children present at the event and that children should not be exposed to some of the images on exhibit.”
The incident prompted criticism in a country where, uniquely in Africa, discrimination on the basis of sexuality is specifically outlawed by the constitution. Despite this, and the legalisation of gay marriage, lesbians have been the targets of murder and co-called “corrective rape”.
Emily Craven of the Joint Working Group, a coalition of gay and lesbian right groups, told News24: “Although everyone is entitled to their own opinion, the minister, as a person in public office, had the obligation to honour her invite and not walk out of the exhibition. By walking out she played into the panic around homophobia in the country.”
But Combrinck denied that the minister objected to the fact that the women were lesbians. “I don’t think it’s based on sexual orientation. It’s more to do with the fact they’re not wearing clothes and engaging in what looks like sexual acts. The minister stands by what she did.”
Cultural summits in South Africa have focused on whether artists have a responsibility to promote nation building, 16 years after the end of apartheid, or should be allowed to make “art for art’s sake”.
Muholi said she was “very disturbed” by the views of Xingwana, whose department gave R300 000 to the Innovative Women exhibition.
Speaking from the US, she told the Times: “There is nothing pornographic. We live in a space where rape is a common thing, so there is nothing we can hide from our children.
“Those pictures are based on experience and issues. Where else can we express ourselves if not in our democratic country?”
She added: “Children need to know about these things. A lot of people have no understanding of sexual orientation, people are suffering in silence.
“We need to educate people about homosexuality. We need to have very good treatment and respect from the minister.”
The Innovative Women exhibition features work by 10 artists including Muholi, photographer Nandipha Mntambo, and painter Bongi Bengu, who also curated it.
The exhibition was also shown in Durban and Cape Town.
In the exhibition’s catalogue, Muholi’s artwork is described as being “without precedent in South Africa, where there are very few instances of black women openly portraying female same-sex practices”. – guardian.co.uk