Female artists snubbed by Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana at an exhibition last year have called her response homophobic and unconstitutional, despite the minister’s protests to the contrary, the Mail & Guardian heard on Thursday.
The incident occurred in August last year at the debut of the Innovative Women exhibition in Johannesburg, but only came to light in the media this week. Xingwana stormed out of the exhibition before making a scheduled speech, apparently after seeing the work of artist and activist Zanele Muholi, depicting women together.
Muholi told the M&G that the move was a step backwards for the country. “In South Africa we fought racism,” she said. “Now we are fighting ongoing hate crimes.
“In South Africa, where we have corrective rapes and violence against lesbians happening in the townships, we have to be careful. When a minister, or someone in a position of power, makes homophobic comments, it could perpetuate hate crimes. You might be putting people at risk. This issue goes beyond art”.
Homophobic claims ‘baseless, insulting’
Xingwana denied any homophobic tendencies when contacted by the M&G saying she “would not, for any reason, be part of any tendencies that undermine the rights of people. I accept and respect the rights of people of different sexual orientation. The claims that I am homophobic are baseless and insulting to me.”
In August 2009, the exhibition, a show that coincided with Women’s Day and aimed to give a platform to young black female artists, opened at Constitution Hill. The department of arts and culture had provided funding of R300 000 for the show. The minister left, calling the works immoral, and later said: “Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this.”
Critics have slammed the terming of the works as “immoral”, saying that Xingwana is displaying a prejudice that is entirely out of line with the Constitution, as well as a lack of understanding of what constitutes contemporary art. Muholi was concerned about what this could mean for the freedom of artists in the future, and how the opinions of the person in charge could affect funding.
“I am speaking for those who come after me,” she said.
But Xingwana insisted that her department was not prejudiced. “I have not imposed censorship on any artists and the funding polices of my ministry and department are very clear,” she said.
However she went on to say it was time for “a long overdue debate on what is art and where do we draw the line between art and pornography”.
- Read the rest of the minister’s response here.
The uproar follows on a larger backlash against gays and lesbians across Africa, with Uganda making moves to criminalise homesexuality, making it an offence punishable by death in some instances. The issue is sensitive in South Africa, following statements made by President Jacob Zuma before he was elected, said that “When I was growing up, unqingili [homosexuals] could not stand in front of me. I would knock him out.” He later apologised for the remark.
Bongi Bhengu, the young artist who curated Innovative Women said that in conceptualising the exhibition, she aimed to give young black female artists “a voice and a platform” and that Muholi was chosen to take part as an artist “who speaks about her world”.
“Everyone has a different perspective of the world, and hers is equally valid”.
The controversy caused by the art works came as a complete surprise to Bhengu, but she said it highlighted the need for female voices to be expressed freely. Ironically the incident made the exhibition even more valuable, and the images are getting airplay in major media outlets.
Celebrating lives of black lesbians
In her artist’s statement, that appears in the catalogue for the exhibition, Muholi states “As an insider within the black lesbian community and a visual activist, I want to ensure that my community, especially those lesbian women who come from the marginalised townships, are included in the women’s ‘canon’.
“The overall aim to my project is to commemorate and celebrate the lives of black lesbians in South Africa from an insider’s perspective, regardless of the harsh realities and oppressions (which includes rife murders and ‘curative rapes’ of black lesbians) that we are still facing in the post-apartheid, democratic South Africa.”
She spoke the M&G from Melbourne, where she is artist-in residence at Monash University.
Muholi, who considers herself “an activist first, and an artist second”, reiterated the importance of documenting the experience of young black lesbians, in an environment that was often surprisingly hostile, given the rights laid out in the Constitution. She said “there is a lack of material”, material that highlights the “many issues” faced by lesbians in this country.
She said: “People forget that issues such as prejudice, HIV, rape and hate crimes affect the lesbian community. My photographs are the starting points for dialogue about these issues”.
Asked about her response to the minister’s statements, she said “It’s paralysing. I expected people to think before they act, and to ask questions. I wanted to create dialogue”.
Muholi emphasised that her disappointment with Xingwana’s statements went beyond Xingwana’s close-minded approach to her artworks. She said “I don’t need someone to tell me my work is nice. But such callousness from someone who happens to hold a position of power is a violation of human rights. Where is the recognition of the issues?”
The “issues” Muholi wishes to address are far reaching, and relate to the failure of the Constitution to protect vulnerable groups, as well as the seeming lack of interest from those in a position to influence ideas and policy. She said “People from outside of South Africa envy us for our Constitution. But in South Africa there is so much homophobia. We are given the platform to speak, but there is no action to match the words. It is a betrayal”.
Muholi was one of the co-founders of the Foundation for the Empowerment of Women (Few), an organisation that aims to highlight issues around gender, as well as monitor gender violence. The M&G spoke to director Busisiwe Kheswa, who agreed with Muholi’s concerns. She said “This is bad news. It tells us that the ANC is regressing. It’s not the first time homophobic remarks have been made. When people criticised Jon Qwelane’s remarks, they asked for ‘proof’ that he was homophobic. It’s just not acceptable”.
She added “Will there be a retraction, or a public apology? It makes it look like the government is supportive of homophobia, when in fact they are supposed to be custodians of the Constitution”.
She added that there is a lack of political will when it comes to addressing these issues.
“When parties were electioneering last year, not one of them had any plan to deal with hate crimes. It’s like the issue doesn’t exist. We have made this Constitution on paper, but in reality, what is the point, when it is not safe for a young black lesbian to walk down the street in a township?”
She added “Failing to speak about this is a failure to address many issues. Young black lesbians suffer from triple-stigmatisation, where they are prejudiced against for being black, for being women, and for being gay. And it a class issue too, and that cannot be ignored. These crimes are not happening in Sandton. They happen in the townships. And when they happen, those women, because they are poor, are unable to do anything about it. They cannot afford adequate representation. They cannot access justice.”
The use of the word “immoral” to describe the artworks was, to Kheswa, an irony. “They say that this is immoral, but they never argued the immorality of Jacob Zuma’s actions. Their notion of ‘morality’ is selective. If the ministers and those in power can make such judgements, and not live by the principles of the Constitution, what can be expected from the rest of us?”