Brave Beauties and the dark Lioness

Muholi at Stevenson (Chaze Matakala/M&G)

Muholi at Stevenson (Chaze Matakala/M&G)

On the last day of August — so-called Women’s Month — Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town hosted a Zanele Muholi retrospective of the photographers’ decade-long body of work. The gift that keeps on giving, Brave Beauties and Somnyama Ngonyama, is visual activism and self-love at its finest.

The evening was warmer than expected, the sun’s colours auspicious. I was wearing far too many layers for a bike ride to Woodstock during a golden hour but maybe I was burning because something about the day felt sacred and super-charged at the same time. Stumbling up the ramp and into Stevenson, I unravelled myself for what was to come. The energy coming from the white walls of the gallery bounced off the larger-than-life presence of the Brave Beauties.

The bodies populating the Brave Beauties photographs found themselves imprinted, almost in time itself. Transwomen, Queer and lesbian individuals from across South Africa found themselves installed as wallpaper in Muholi’s signature black-and-white photographs, resulting in a permanence of scale and being.

Each wallpaper portrait suggested preservation as opposed to consumption. Just as there are no ideological frames big enough to contain the infinite and fluid expressions of who and what we are, there are no frames big enough to contain the powerful images of desiring subjects, denying the spectator that chance to objectify.

Thriving in the time we find ourselves, visual culture has its established aesthetic values and gender stereotypes. What the Brave Beauties through Muholi have manifested is in defiance of those boring and rigid concepts. Here, returning the gaze becomes an act of sociopolitical resistance. Bearing witness to self-acceptance and self-love makes us even more aware that we are living in an illusion of transparency.

The gaze was not the only mechanism that was tested at Stevenson that night. A wall facing the courtyard was dedicated to self-expression of the written form. A stepladder and black and red markers were provided, and those present on opening night were given the opportunity to write what felt right. Something like a show-and-tell, but for private thoughts.

On the other side of the wall of words to live by is the ongoing photographic series Somnyama Ngonyama. In varying sizes, Muholi presents her archive of the self. The portraits in which Muholi takes on infinite and fluid personas are united by a darkness irresistible and a gaze undeniable.

The gaze is a contentious issue in the lives of the marginalised and the life of the muse. To be looked at and visualised as something other is an experience many face in a conservative society that parades itself as liberal. Yes, the Mother City is a self-inscribed paradise for many, but what happens when that Mother City denies her forgotten child?

According to the Brave Beauties and Muholi, you emancipate and immortalise yourself into black-and-white print. Yes, you emancipate yourself into a family that is chosen.

The part of the gallery that held Muholi’s many faces later became a space for curry dinner, beer on tap and, of course, struggle songs. Gather enough queers and artists in one room, dim the lights a bit, and habitual rituals of resistance and revelry ensue. Heels clack and hearts thump. Perhaps this is a good time to ask yourself if being seen, as opposed to being looked at, is one of the many pathways to liberation?

I wait patiently for Muholi to finish a conversation with a queen who looks like the great-aunt I never met but always wanted to visit for holidays in a home by a large body of water. Did I mention the uplifting number of queen mothers present on opening night? It was truly an epic evening of intergenerational healing.

Now’s my chance! I ask to take her portrait and Muholi obliges. Only two shots left on my roll of film, the only pressure I feel is what I apply to the shutter. I know that tomorrow that man who works at the spot where I get my film developed will be raving about Muholi, as he always does. I humbly receive a satisfying look that reminds me to question myself and everything around me, that reminds me that I am more than a woman every day of the year, not just in August.

Brave Beauties/Somnyama Ngonyama is on show at Stevenson, 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock, Cape Town, until October 7

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