Zanele Muholi at Stevenson in Cape TownBy Renee Holleman
26 July - 01 September. 0 Comment(s)
‘human beings are human insofar as they bear witness to the inhuman’
Giorgio Agamben – Remnants of Auschwitz
It's not often that an exhibition has brought me to tears. In all likelihood there aren't many I would expect to. It's not that we don't imagine ourselves saddened or moved when viewing what we consider to be contemporary art, but in those instances where a sufficient level of pathos exists, our capacity to comprehend the dynamics at play usually stops short of such an emotional rise. Crying in an exhibition is also a little embarrassing, so it was with some surprise that I found myself quietly wiping the tears from my eyes half way through visiting Muholi's recent exhibition.
'Mo(u)rning' is an expansive and deeply affecting body of work that extends Muholi's documentation of the lives of the black LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and intersex) community. Working predominantly through portraiture, Muholi has sought to produce a history that pays homage to the diversity of identities that fall within its ambit. In particular she has focussed on the lives of black lesbian women, whose repeated violent victimisation in South Africa amplifies our awareness of the degradation that many women across the spectrum experience on a daily basis. It's also particularly poignant that Muholi's work was shown during the tragic farce that is Women's Month in this country: a month in which Rape Crisis in Cape Town (a city with some of the highest rape figures in the world) almost shut its doors due to lack of funding.
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The exhibition takes as its starting point the targeted theft of an extensive archive of the artist’s material that recorded numerous hate crimes committed against South African queer people, and more broadly explored gender issues in Africa. Confronted by its loss, Muholi was forced to question: '(w)hat happens when such images disappear or when a collection of testimonies is erased?' In answer, this exhibition seems to mark a shift in the documentary nature and impetus of her work towards what it means to bear witness, as both artist and spectator, through a combination of factual and manipulated, direct and allusive material.
The first few works on show are emblematic. On entering the exhibition one encounters a series of five beaded recreations of hard-hitting newspaper headline boards that function as both record and memorial. Sourced from newspapers such as the New Age, News Day and Daily Voice, they all refer to brutal deaths – 'Lesbian killed in bush of evil' – or topical debate associated with them. Alongside the headlines, in Crime Scene (1-5), are photographs of what appears to be a rape and murder: a women's body discarded beneath a pile of leaves and dirty plastic, her pants pulled to her ankles. Despite our knowledge of its constructedness, the work is profoundly disturbing in its implied violence. Opposite, a video and images of sea creatures (worms, clams, anemones) make bodily reference to genitalia, to the softness and vulnerability of flesh, and to the intimacy of bodies in proximity.
Markedly different in style and execution, each of these series of works keys into Muholi's broader documentary project of visual activism while signalling different registers within it: the factual and archival, the testimonial, and the personal or intimate. Although distinct, these categories overlap and interconnect around a central concern with visibility (both political and aesthetic): Who is seen? How are they seen? What does it mean to be seen? And by whom? They also crucially mediate the position of the viewer in relation to the work. In 'Mo(u)rning', Muholi's emphasis on the testimonial in a number of important works invokes this dynamic.
The first of these, Crime Scene (1-5), 2012 (above) directly implicates the viewer as a witness. In other works, Muholi has photographed actual crime scenes – the place where Lungile Dladla survived a violent attack, the site where Eudy Simelane's body was found (now commemorated with her portrait). In a separate space, Muholi has created a remembrance room resembling the interior of a home. Two videos showing the funerals of a young man and woman play inside: Thapelo Makutle and Noxolo Nogwaza both dead at 24 years old. Viewers are asked to remove their shoes before entering as a gesture of respect. Moving through into the main room of the exhibition, one is confronted with a wall of individually hand-written texts by women who have been variously attacked, beaten and raped. Each testifies to the horror of ignorance, hatred and fundamental disregard that has been used to justify the crimes against them. In the video Eye Me (playing in the adjacent room) row upon row of women's eyes gaze out at the viewer, implacable and insistent, both seeing and seen.
Importantly, not all the works on show attest to violence. Muholi's extended Faces and Phases series - candid portraits of black lesbian women, are remarkable in their simple facticity. Her more intimate, often erotic pieces, such as Being Scene (a seductive film of two women making love) challenge any sense of detachment a viewer might hold in their celebration of sexuality and desire. Her highly acclaimed film Difficult Love reveals in her personal story, not only pain and prejudice but awareness and understanding.
But what does it mean to bear witness? To bear witness is more than to idly observe; in witnessing we are complicit, we cannot undo what we see or hear. Witnessing is also a call to action; it asks that we immerse ourselves to some extent in the suffering of others and reflect on the experience and its implications, even if we're not sure what to do with them. Without a doubt Muholi herself takes up this role, but the issue of bearing witness has broader implications for the viewer of her work.
In Remnants (1999) Agamben writes of the distinction between those who are the true witnesses; the victims of trauma, and those who tell their story. He suggests that people who have been violently brutalised, who have experienced the inhuman, struggle to convey their encounter in any comprehensive way, and thus it is left up to the incomplete witness, those who have only partly shared in the experience, to speak for them. In this ethics of witnessing, Agamben suggests that testimony is significant because it collapses the gap between the human and the inhuman.
Extending this idea, Julia Creet explains in Calling all Witnesses (2009), that secondary witnesses, who ultimately cannot know, bear the responsibility of their privilege. They are 'called upon to pay attention to their own future capacity for ethical and/or unethical action rather than the immediate details of testimony, which can only be transmitted as history.'
And so it is with Muholi's work in 'Mo(u)rning' that in the complex mix of pleasure, hard fought dignity and terrible loss of life she presents, there is the possibility for something new to arise: an awareness or consciousness that builds in us, the viewer, a potential to understand the moral implications of other's – and, more importantly, our own – actions. In so doing, her work brings into focus not only an understanding of what it means to be black and a lesbian, to be queer in South Africa, but perhaps… and without providing any easy answers, the question of what it means to be human.