…Zanele Muholi, whose photographic portraits from her recent project “Faces and Phases,” have been traveling the world for the past few years. Here is a poster from her Amsterdam book exhibit:
That is not a photograph of Muholi, but one of over a hundred portraits she took between 2006 and last year, of black lesbians in South Africa. (This portrait is of Benedicta Sekoati Duduza in Johannesburg in 2013. Muholi names her subjects, with their permission, because they are individuals and they do have names.)
Muholi undertook this dangerous project precisely because of the constant and too often lethal dangers confronting queer folk, and particularly black lesbians, in South Africa, despite the nation’s constitution that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexuality. “Corrective rape,” slashings, beatings, and murder are common assaults on black lesbians in a collective attempt to terrorize them into gender and sexual conformity. Muholi herself was targeted for her work, when in the spring of 2012 her apartment was burglarized and twenty hard drives stolen — hard drives containing five years of work on this project and others. As she told The New Yorker’s Elissa Curtis, “I’m still traumatized by the burglary… It’s hard to fall asleep in this place, which is now a crime scene, as I dealt with many crime scenes before.”
I learned of Muholi’s work from several of her large black and white portrait prints that hang in the Pompidou Center as part of its history of contemporary art exhibit (“Une histoire, art, architecture et design, des annees 80 a aujourd’hui”). Though the exhibit fills multiple galleries on the fourth floor, it is hard to imagine how the curators selected the handful of photographers represented in its sweeping scope. But since the curators’ vision of contemporary art focuses on the artists’ engagement with their social context, Muholi’s work is singularly appropriate.
Here is a wonderful installation shot from her exhibit at one of my favorite venues, The Photographers’ Gallery in London:
Muholi’s work also includes photographs of intimate moments between lovers and partners, images that have led to protests not only from some religious folk, but also from spokespeople for a particular vision of “nation building” among South African blacks (i.e., not one that includes queer folk or lesbians), and from some government officials. One moment that got a lot of press was the Arts and Culture minister Lulu Xingwana storming out of a 2010 Johannesburg exhibit that contained some of these apparently shocking “pornographic” images. The story is nicely told by blogger Melanie Nathan, who has followed Muholi for several years and counts her as a friend and kindred spirit.
Winner of a number of prestigious artistic and human rights awards, Muholi has traveled the world with her photographs and rightly been noticed by major news and culture organizations like The New Yorker and PBS in this country. PBS offers an interview clip that allows Muholi to tell her own story.
Statistically, United States queer people no longer face the kind of routine violence that forces extreme vigilance on South African lesbians and gay men. But statistics are meaningless to the individuals who have been attacked, vilified, or forced to live in fear in the US or elsewhere in the world. Oregon has become a pretty friendly place to live for queer folk, but we have fought some hard human rights battles in the last twenty years. Muholi’s work reminds me of a heroic photographic project undertaken by James Folts at Oregon State University (my home institution) in 1992 as LGBTQ people and our allies were pushing back against one of the hate group-sponsored referenda of that decade that would have created us as a special political class, potentially ineligible for public employment as teachers or mentors to youth, among other indignities. Jim Folts sought gay and lesbian individuals and families willing to be photographed, and produced a beautiful traveling exhibit of larger than life portraits and profiles of these people: “Family, Friends, and Neighbors,” depicting friends, neighbors, teachers, doctors, ministers, artists, partners, children, parents. In addition to the intensive door to door work by allied political groups to push back the conservative “Christian” campaign, these photographs were one of the most effective tools in the fight to give names and faces — subjectivity — to the part of the population being portrayed as dangerous, bad, antireligious, subversive, and sick.
The exhibit had a long and sometimes controversial life. When it was displayed in the Washington state house in 1996, a group of conservative lawmakers demanded that it be removed. The state refused. Another objection to the public display of this exhibit came from Eugene, our ultra-liberal neighbor to the south. Don Bishoff complained in the Eugene Register-Guard that the library mounted the display on November 1, 1994, right before the election containing yet another antigay ballot measure. Timing was an issue, because the exhibit was so gay-positive that people might come away with the idea that the library was taking a political stance against the discriminatory measure! I would love to think that Bishoff is today embarrassed by his op-ed piece, but one can only dream. Plus ca change…..
We can argue that the people who really need to be changed by seeing the faces they love to hate are, in fact, impervious to reason and to normal appeals of the heart. But bad guys need followers, and indifference creates de facto followers (political scientists, please accept my apology RIGHT NOW. I’m shooting from the hip on my theory, here). So — the artists, the writers, the lovers, the marchers, the butches and the fems, the sissy boys and the drag queens — all those who flaunt and challenge the norms, and all of their families, friends, and neighbors, soldier on. Yes. And thanks.