Zanele Muholi: Love in a brutalised world

When photographer Zanele Muholi opened Inkanyiso, an exhibition at Johannesburg’s Stevenson Gallery in July last year featuring black-and-white portraits of lesbians and transgendered people, the crowd was not only drawn from the usual arts community.

Hordes of women in sharp, boy-like outfits and others with shaved heads savoured the occasion with the ­gallery regulars.

It was more than an exhibition as the impromptu “rally” addressed by the photographer soon showed. Muholi, the pivot of the concentric ­circles that closed in on her, exhorted the crowd, telling them “sibaningi” (there are many of us).

New works from Faces and Phases, an ongoing project, will feature at Documenta from June 9. This prestigious and carefully curated festival of modern and contemporary art takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany.

It is certain that Muholi’s community is jumping at the honour. In a phone interview from her home in Vredehoek, Cape Town, she told me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime ­recognition that meant a lot to her.

She was quick to spread the love, pointing out that it “is not just me who will be there, but the community I represent, the community I ­document.

“Let me make a claim: this could be the first time that a lesbian person from Africa is showing her works at Documenta. I have never hidden my identity. I am going there as I am. It is a recognition of our community.”

Muholi is always out there, overtly fighting prejudice, questioning the dogmas around sexuality and documenting the lives and, alas, the deaths of members of her community.

Recently at an OpenForum conference in Cape Town, she said: “I am a lesbian … I love women and I love vaginas.”

Love and violence

If some people find her abrasive, it is a siege role she has been forced to take on, given that lesbians are “correctively” raped, sometimes even killed, especially in the townships.

She hopes her presence at Documenta will bring the Western world’s attention to the violence aimed “at blurring the existence of the lesbians”.

She said: “I hope when someone at Documenta looks at the black-and-white images they will ask themselves: ‘Why are they here?’”

Her world, she told me, is one in which “love is juxtaposed with violence”. She draws attention to the scores of mothers who “are in mourning, having lost their daughters because of their sexual orientation. And you ask yourself where is justice?” She pointedly poses the ­question: “Why is this going on when we are supposed to have laws that ­protect les­bians, gays and transgendered ­people?”

When she visited Johannesburg in October to cover the Gay Pride marches, I tagged along. I met Muholi on Jorissen Street, just outside Wits University, where she had just shot the activities of the les­bian, gay and transgendered community at Wits. We caught a taxi to the University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park, where her bustling activist self came to the fore. Always looking to get the best shots, Muholi was every­where: the front, the rear and the sides, documenting her community.

Later that afternoon I sat with her as she sat helping students at the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking. One student had made a short film about a KwaZulu-Natal mother who had come out in her late middle age. Her children — especially her son — were hurt by their mother’s sexuality. Muholi made considered and helpful comments.

She is more than qualified to offer this kind of assistance; after all, she has made a feature-length film, Difficult Love, together with Peter Goldsmid, which won the audience award for best short film at the Africa in the Picture film festival in Amsterdam last year.

The film, commissioned by the SABC, is a touching portrayal of Muholi and, by extension, the lives of South Africa’s lesbian community.

Muholi also spoke, on the phone, about the fate of gay people in the rest of the continent.

“We know the situation in Uganda is quite desperate,” she said, referring to how Uganda’s parliament almost passed a law that would have resulted in the execution of homosexual people.

She was looking at the larger picture, at how the persecution of gay people had driven them not just underground but also out of the picture.

Excluded and violated

“I feel that your history, whether one is straight, homosexual or transgender, should be part of the national archive — but if you are outlawed, you cease to exist both as a human being and as an artist.

“You cannot talk about a citizenry and then exclude a certain part of it.”

A burglary at Muholi’s flat in April resulted in the theft of 20 computer hard drives containing five years of her work, including video footage of the unveiling of slain gay Ugandan activist David Kato’s tombstone. It appears that the burglars might have been targeting her work, as little else of value was stolen.

“I am supposed to be celebrating going to Documenta but it is painful. I have been violated and it is beyond words. Why does it have to happen now? I am still asking myself why my place had to be a crime scene,” she said.

Years of Muholi’s work documenting the lives of a frightened, brutalised community are     gone, just like that.

The philosopher would wryly remark that this is a strange case of life imitating art — or is it vice versa?

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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