An air of ordered chaos follows Zanele Muholi’s entrance into Juta Street’s Stevenson Gallery. Although unassuming and dressed in loose-fitting denim pants, black-and-white T-shirt and trademark black hat, Muholi — a notable figure on the global arts stage — enters the fifth-floor gallery space followed by a phalanx of assistants, gallery staff and collaborators (veteran television producer Mfundi Vundla, who is co-producing a documentary on her, among them).
It is the morning before the opening of her retrospective exhibition, Faces and Phases, and although the work — strikingly simple black-and-white portraits of black lesbians staring directly, defiantly into her camera — is displayed and ready for viewing, ironing out the smaller, behind-the-scenes creases is what’s currently keeping Muholi and her troupe occupied.
Between dishing out orders with a soft-spoken, almost motherly firmness (“Jess, I don’t need those books here, honestly” and “Lerato, please run to Kameraz and check if they can replace this thing on my camera”), Muholi gracefully makes sure she introduces everybody before eventually dismissing those tasked with running the necessary errands. (“I need to worry about other things now, guys. Please go.”)
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The exhibition not only marks Muholi’s 10th year with the gallery, but also a decade since the self-described “visual activist” initiated the body of work she undertook to bring light to the marginalisation and violence suffered by the country’s black lesbian community. (“This is a milestone I never anticipated when I started working on this project,” she messaged me a few days prior to our interview.)
Indeed, there can be little doubt that the Umlazi-born-and-raised photographer has come a long way since completing her photography studies at the Market Photo Workshop in 2003. Having exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13), the 29th São Paulo Biennale and the South African pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, she went on to win the 2005 Tollman award for visual arts, the 2009 Casa Africa award for best female photographer, a Fondation Blachère award at Les Rencontres de Bamako Biennial of African Photography (also in 2009), the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Art award in 2013 and the ICP Infinity award for documentary and photojournalism this year. She was also shortlisted for the 2015 Deutsche Börse Photography prize for the book Faces and Phases 2006-14.
Back in the gallery, Muholi (also a former Standard Bank Young Artist award-winner) smiles — indicating she’s finally ready to speak to me — winking: “Woza Carl … Let’s do this thing.”
So, 10 years later. You must be pleased.
This is one of the most remarkable periods in my life. Having worked on Faces and Phases for 10 years now … it’s something else. Also, if I think about the fact that this body of work is much more popular abroad than it is here in South Africa, that makes this exhibition really special to me.
I mean, we’ve made it to the Venice Biennale, which was a highlight in my career, and also dOCUMENTA (13) — another career highlight. I’ve managed to penetrate the most impossible spaces with this body of work — nonqueer spaces.
Why do you think Faces and Phases is more popular abroad than here? To what would you attribute that?
In your Mail & Guardian, have you ever seen a feature on Faces and Phases? In any of the papers in this country, have you ever seen anything on this body of work?
The only time we [as lesbians] ever make headlines is when there’s been a hate crime. And even then, the headline is usually something along the lines of “another lesbian raped and murdered”. It has to be dead bodies; nothing about our heritage as LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people or how we just, you know, celebrate ourselves.
In 22 years, what kind of LGBTI content do we see in mainstream media in South Africa? And I’m not blaming you per se, wena Carl. I’m just saying we have to question the media — question these institutions.
Definitely. But I think that through my fellowship here with the Mail & Guardian [the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellowship], something is being done about this. But we are, admittedly, only one publication.
That is good, yes. Our stories must be written. We cannot be erased. For me, if I can’t see myself in newspapers, magazines or on TV, it means I have to create those kinds of images, you know? But the most important thing for me is to create visuals that will count as part of South Africa’s visual and historical archives. We are making history here.
This year marks 10 years since the Civil Union Act, 20 years since the Constitution was adopted, 40 years since the youth uprisings and 60 years since the women’s march on the Union Buildings. And all these events — all of these major events in South African history — had queer people involved in them.
If you just think about the women’s march in 1956, how many of those women were lesbian, but couldn’t, at that time, articulate it or be open about their identities or sexuality — because they lived in that time and because of what they were fighting for at the time. We have things like, for example, Helen Joseph buried in the same grave as Lillian Ngoyi. Such a powerful story. That story gives me life.
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You’re touching on something Angela Davis mentioned in her Steve Biko Memorial Lecture when she touched on how intersectionality has become a central part of many resistance movements recently. She spoke of “erasures and foreclosures” and how, during previous struggles, it was much harder for most of those involved in it to include, say, feminism or queer rights as part of their fight. And how, essentially, each struggle has “its time”. Do you think that, despite this kind of resistance to what you are doing, the time to highlight these issues is now? That maybe this is our time, “Zanele’s time”?
It’s tricky. I can’t say it’s my time, because I’m not showing images of only Zanele. There are a lot of individuals who helped me be where I am, who trusted me with their all. People who took risks with me.
So, I’d rather say it’s the time of the issue. It’s just that the issue hasn’t been properly looked at and articulated. We haven’t penetrated the media enough. I don’t want my identity reduced to just a dead body in some story. There’s too much sensationalism in the media when it comes to us. There are so many women in this country who live together in beautiful, intimate bonds with other women, but their voices — their stories — are being muted.
There are a lot of LGBTI people who have done remarkable work — in sports, in academia, all kinds of fields — but who never had an opportunity to shine because of the impositions of existing power structures. We have to negotiate spaces all the time. We’re constantly being placed on the edge.
So, I can’t say it’s my time. I’d rather say it’s our time. Because, whatever I am doing, I’m doing for us. For that grandmother, for example, who never had the opportunity to say: “I am here, this is me.” That grandmother who was forced into a marriage because of the time she was living in then. I’m not doing this for me. I just happen to be a messenger; a messenger with a camera in my hand, who is saying: “Sibaningi” — there are many of us.
In your latest body of work, Somnyama Ngonyama, you have turned the camera on yourself, producing a body of self-portraits …
It’s difficult to look at yourself and confront your own issues. For me, producing Somnyama Ngonyama was more like therapy. I needed healing. I need a Jesus in my life [she laughs] — some sort of spirituality in order to regain my sanity.
I photographed a lot of people for Faces and Phases and by the time I was finished putting this together [Muholi points to a copy of her monograph, Faces and Phases 2006–2014], I was super-tired. Super, super-tired. So I needed to look at me; to really think about who I am. That self-confrontation was major for me … major. Because most of the time we as photographers focus on other people and, in that, forget who we are. I get so consumed by the stories people tell me when I photograph them. And it’s even worse — much, much worse — when you can’t help them. So I needed that healing.
Has it healed you?
It’s not over. Photography is my fix. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. So photography is my fix, you know [more laughter]. It is my way of processing and healing. So no, it’s not over. But the more I look at myself through photography, the more I see somebody. Somebody exists, you know? Zanele exists. I see the other side of me. I see beauty in me.
So what do have planned for the next 10 years?
For the next 10 years, I’m going to be working so hard that there are going to be volumes and volumes of Faces and Phases [she laughs again]. This is a lifetime project.
(At this point, Mfundi Vundla, who has been sitting in on our conversation, asks Muholi: “But what is going to happen once Zanele Muholi is no longer there. Will Faces and Phases continue beyond Zanele Muholi?”)
Of course. You know, I am training a lot of youngsters to become photographers. Some of the individuals in Faces and Phases are now photographers because I’ve encouraged them to become the next generation of photographers. And I’m proud of that.
I also send people to the Market Photo Workshop and finance their studies myself. Which means that, if I can’t carry on, there will be people who will continue to produce work and document their lives and the lives of others. Because it shouldn’t end with me. And it won’t end with me. There are many of us. And these stories carry on.
Faces and Phases will be exhibited at Stevenson Gallery, 62 Juta Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until October 14.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation‘s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian