I continue to bleed each time I read about rampant curative rapes in my ‘democratic’ South Africa.
I bleed every time queer bodies are violated and refused citizenship due to gender expression and sexual orientation within the African continent.
I constantly bleed when I hear about brutal murders of black lesbians in our townships and surrounding areas.
I’m scarred and scared as I don’t know whose body will be next to be buried.
I bleed because our human rights are ripped.
I cry and bleed as mothers, lovers, friends, relatives lose their beloved ones, let alone the children that become orphans because of trans/queerphobic violence.
We bleed, our life cycles invaded, we bleed against the will of our bodies and beings.
Images that fill gaps in the stories told of a people, the people of the nation; images that tell stories of others, stories judged shameful by the shame of hatred; images that give face and voice to those ignored, silenced, obliterated; images of bodies with smell, taste, texture, bodies, beings of carnal beauty: the photography of Zanele Muholi speaks of/with those who suffer the violence of heterosexual patriarchy in south africa. It protests apartheids that survive the end of official apartheid. But beyond protest, it celebrates the freedom and desire of life beyond gender fascisms. Refusing to describe those photographed as her subjects, sharing with them the creativity of the photographed image, Muholi does not represent victims, but rather creates a poetry of visual/physical beauty.
I started photography because I was frustrated by how there were no images of black lesbians anywhere I looked. At the time I was working as a reporter for Behind The Mask and it struck me that our struggle was in a way operating within a void, if people don’t see you, and by this I mean if they don’t connect to your personhood, they can easily violate you or look the other way if they are witnesses to violence against you. It was also a reaction to the desperation in trying to connect with the changes that were taking place in South Africa at the time. Not having an active visual archive of black lesbians in the country meant that we could be casually or carelessly written out of our country’s history, that our contributions would not be tallied, and as a community that’s not acceptable. I did not see myself anywhere and so I sought to write myself in, and with me and through collaborations with friends and supporters my work started. Obviously, in telling any story you can’t just be the star of the tale, other people feature and their contribution and their own stories become part of the whole narrative, and so capturing images of lesbian and transgender men and women in South Africa as well as other parts of the continent and the Diaspora was an organic and practical development. You never act alone, not with things this important, you need community.
My work is a visual exploration of making/mapping/preserving radical black lesbian and queer (LGBTI : lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) visual history in post-Apartheid South Africa. I explore how visual activism can be employed by socially, culturally, politically and economically marginalized individuals to create sites of resistance as well as to develop a critical gaze from our own perspective.
As a visual artist, one is always confronted with the politics of representation. I have the choice to portray my community in a manner that will turn us once again into a commodity to be consumed by the outside world, or to create a body of meaning that is welcomed by us as a community of queer black women. I choose the latter path, because it is through capturing the visual pleasures and erotica of my community that our being comes into focus, into community and national consciousness. And it is through seeing ourselves as we find love, laughter, joy that we can sustain our strength and regain our sanity as we move into a future that is sadly still filled with the threat of insecurities – HIV/AIDS, hate crimes, violence against women, poverty, unemployment.
I have the choice to portray my community in a manner that will turn us once again into a commodity to be consumed by the outside world, or to create a body of meaning that is welcomed by us as a community of queer black women. I choose the latter path, because it is through capturing the visual pleasures and erotica of my community that our being comes into focus, into community and national consciousness. And it is through seeing ourselves as we find love, laughter, joy that we can sustain our strength and regain our sanity as we move into a future that is sadly still filled with the threat of insecurities – HIV/AIDS, hate crimes, violence against women, poverty and unemployment.
Reflecting on her practice in 2009, the artist wrote: “I need to underscore that naming ourselves and ‘being’ is more than a fashion statement or a research topic. Rather, it is a political consciousness that we do not have a choice about. To be black, lesbian and African is by its very nature political in a world that is still overwhelmingly heterosexual.
I always say to people that I’m an activist before I’m an artist. To me, you take a particular photo in order for other people to take action. So you become an agent for change in a way. I say that I am a visual activist because it’s important to me to go beyond just being a photographer. Because you know, that sounds so sexy and it’s a “profession.” I think to myself what’s the point of just taking a picture? What happens after that? I’m doing what I’m doing to make a statement and also to say to people: This is possible.
Most of the people I have in my photographs, there is a relationship. It excites me to see the changes in people’s lives and also the role that the photography plays in other people’s lives. With us, we’re still talking and in each other’s lives and that means something to me. Because it means it went beyond just photographing and it was more about the relationship that was established during that period. Those memories mean a lot.
Zanele Muholi maintains, with others, a web site dedicated to narrating, debatting, struggling for LGBT forms of life. See inkanyiso.org.