by Gabi Ngcobo (December, 2006)
In the past three years or so, Zanele Muholi's photographs have been generating excitement as much as they have been unsettling audiences in South Africa and elsewhere around the world. It seems important that we as South Africans, and indeed all Africans, should ask ourselves if we are ready for Muholi's voice and what she is beckoning us towards. Can we risk hearing, seeing and crossing to this seemingly unfamiliar territory?
Muholi came into public awareness with her solo exhibition 'Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture' held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004. The exhibition marked the end of her Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. After that, her work showing black lesbians in intimate moments became a subject of both private and public scrutiny from art historians, feminist and gender scholars.
Muholi chose to stay closer to her experiences by capturing her world and 'people' as she would unsurprisingly declare. The closeness Muholi shares with the people she portrays plays itself out in a way in which they appear comfortable in the intimacy of their environments. The pictures are conceptually provocative, playful, and outright confrontational. As photography remains a mode of expression dominated by men, Muholi's images serve to claim a space for black female bodies from centuries of objectification. It is an exercise in ensuring that those rendered voiceless can begin to reclaim the (visual) culture that was historically denied to them.
Muholi's work further evokes moments of women 'living under siege' as so straightforwardly articulated by feminist scholar Pumla Dineo Gqola in a comment published in the Mail and Guardian (May 2004) entitled 'Bleeding on the streets of South Africa'. The current visibility of Muholi's work coincides with major political shifts and events, such as the much debated Same Sex Civil Union bill recently passed by South Africa, the first country in Africa and fifth in the world to allow such unions.
'This is a time for a visual state of emergence. The preservation and mapping of our herstories is the only way for us black lesbians to be visible. The textualisation of our cultures is not sufficient but historicising is not impassable. It is for this reason that I embark on what I call visual activism. My work is about observing and taking action. I take pictures of myself and other women to heal from my past. ?...It is personal issues that makes me do what I do, for I have been raped more than 50 times by just listening to what women who have confessed and confirmed their love for other women have been through.'
'I have seen people speaking and capturing images of lesbians on our behalf, as if we are incapable and mute. I have witnessed this at Gay Pride events, at academic conferences, in the so-called women's movement forums. Research opened my eyes even wider than the lens, and it made me feel autonomous. I refused to become subject matter for others and to be silenced. Many have exiled our female African bodies: by colonisers, by researchers, by men. Sarah Baartman became a spectacle for Europeans, and she died in a foreign land. She was never given a chance to speak for herself. ?...It is for this reason that I say No, not yet another black body'.
'When I see blood (menstrual blood, I'm assuming) crudely manipulated into the form of the female reproductive organ - that is disturbing. The photos of the misshapen, overweight woman - as Venus of Willendorfesque as she may be - it is unhealthy and again disturbing. Seeing the girl with the dildo - disturbing. Maybe I had a weak stomach 'cause I missed lunch, I don't know - I just don't find the photos 'beautiful'. Powerful, yes, beautiful no.'
'... Zanele Muholi ushers in a new language to articulate Black lesbian sexuality creatively and politically at the same time. She visualizes it, represents it, captures it, defines it, traces its routes, and imagines its worlds anew. In her pictures, Black lesbian sexualities/identities emerge as a complex myriad with as many experiences and potentialities as exist for any human experience. The documentary and artistic dialects through which she carves such projects themselves reflect her content in their diversity and slipperiness. She is a photographer we cannot neatly classify, and she is one whose vision we would be foolish to ignore.'
Pumla Dineo Gqola 'Re/imagining ways of seeing: making and speaking selves through Zanele Muholi's eyes' in Only Half a Picture, 2006, STE
Muholi has recently been awarded the first BHP Billiton/Wits University Visual Arts Fellowship. The fellowship promotes inspirational practice and teaching in visual arts through an artist-in-residence and teaching programme in the Division of Visual Arts in the Wits School of Arts. As part of the fellowship Muholi is in the final stages of editing her second documentary Being a Ma which looks at lesbian mothers and seeks to challenge confined and narrow definitions of motherhood as witnessed in the heteropatriarchal nuclear family concept that ignores sexual dynamism of many women living in South Africa.
Recently Muholi's work has shifted from her usual focus and ventured into exploring lived realities of the black gay, transsexual and intersex people living around Johannesburg's inner city and townships. She currently features in the group exhibition 'Women: Photography and New Media: Imaging the Self and Body through Portraiture' at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and 'South African Art Now' at the Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town.
In 2005 Muholi was presented with the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts and subsequently mounted her solo exhibition 'Only half the picture' at Michael Stevenson Gallery. A catalogue was co-published by Michael Stevenson and STE in April 2006. 'Only half the picture' later travelled to the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg and to the Afrovibes Festival in Amsterdam. In 2005, as an acknowledgement for her passionate activism within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex (LGBTI) community, Muholi was awarded the first LGBTI Arts and Culture Award.
In 2006 Muholi's work was featured in 'Second to None' curated by Gabi Ngcobo and Virginia MacKenny at Iziko South African National Gallery, and was part of a group show 'Olvida quien soy - Erase me from who I am' curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose with Khwezi Gule, Tracy Murinik and Gabi Ngcobo at the Centro Atlantico de Arte Mordeno (CAAM), Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
Her photography is included in Vitamin Ph published by Phaidon, London and Women by Women, 50 years of Women's photography in South Africa edited by Robin Comley, George Hallett and Neo Ntsoma.
'Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture', Muholi's first solo exhibition held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004 brought her to national attention and opened up invitations to feminist conferences, workshops and exhibitions. One such workshop, 'Gender and Visuality', held at the University of Western Cape, saw Muholi's pictures generating a number of heated comments from the public. Enraged by a Picture (2005), a documentary film by Muholi was a direct response to the feedback generated by the exhibition, it was first shown as part of the 'Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival'and subsequently travelled to 17 international film festivals in places including London, New York, Canada, Brazil, Germany and Korea. Through the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), an organisation that she co-founded, Muholi continues to train young women from Johannesburg townships in visual literacy and photographic skills.
Muholi is one of 63 artists whose work will be featured in 'TRANS CAPE' a multi venue exhibition of contemporary African art to be held in Cape Town in March next year. Her work will also be included in an exhibition of contemporary South African photography to be held at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK) in Berlin in January 2007. Being a Ma will be shown as part of the 2007 'Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival', South Africa.
Muholi was Born in Umlazi, Durban, 1972. She lives and works in Johannesburg where she completed an Advanced Photography course at the Market Photo Workshop, Newtown in 2004. Muholi co-founded and works for the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (www.few.org.za).
2006 Vienna Kunsthalle project space, Vienna
2006 'Only half the picture', Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town, Market Theatre Photo Workshop, Johannesburg, and Galerie 32-34, Amsterdam
2005 Enraged by a picture, film screenings at the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, various venues
2004 'Visual Sexuality: Only half the picture' as part of 'Urban Life', Market Photo Workshop exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS AND CONFERENCES
2006 'Women: Photography and New Media: Imaging the Self and Body through Portraiture', Johannesburg Art Gallery
2006 African Feminist Forum, Ghana, Accra
2006 'Olvida Quien Soy - Erase me from who I am', Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderna, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
2006 'Second to None', South African National Gallery, Cape Town
2005 'South African art 1848 to now', Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town
2005 'Doing Gender', Department of Women's and Gender Studies, University of the Western Cape
2005 'Sexual Rights and Moral Panics', International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS) conference, San Francisco State University, California
2005 'A Lesson from History', Klein Karoo National Arts Festival, Oudtshoorn
2005 'Subject to Change', South African National Gallery, Cape Town
2005 Month of Photography, Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town
2005 'Erotic Blenders', Toronto, Canada
2005 World Beyond Words (part of Writing African Women conference at the University of the Western Cape), Centre for?oAfrican Studies, University of Cape Town
2004 'Young Vision 2004', Alliance Française, Johannesburg
2004 'Sex en Kultuur' festival, Cape Town
2004 Pride Week, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg
2004 'Gender and Visuality' conference, University of the Western Cape
2004 'Women Arts Festival: Is Everybody Comfortable?', Market Photo Workshop exhibition, Museum Africa, Johannesburg
2004 'Urban Life', Market Photo Workshop exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
2003 'Women Arts Festival: What Makes A Woman?', Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg
2003 'Pride Women Arts Festival', Johannesburg
2003 'Women Arts Festival', Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg
2002 'Women Arts Festival', Pink Loerie Festival, Knysna
2006 BHP Billiton/Wits University Visual Arts Fellowship
2005 Tollman Award
2005 LGBTI Arts and Culture Award
Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa; The Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, USA; UNISA Art Collection, South Africa