Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How effective is activism in a gallery setting?

IT’S Ironic that Lulu Xingwana’s highly published disapproval of Zanele Muholi’s now landmark photograph of two black naked lesbians spooning brought her cause into the public domain in 2009. Before that, her photographs of this marginalised and stigmatised group had largely been confined to regular gallery visitors, who tend to have liberal views about sexuality. She was preaching to the converted. As a result her documentation of black lesbians in gallery contexts evokes a sense of futility, or at least to some degree dilutes the activist impulse driving the work. Her work’s commercial, aesthetic and art historical values are more significant in this setting. 

Xingwana’s reaction underscored the value of Muholi’s photographic study: if an individual from the high echelons of our society harboured such narrow attitudes, it was proof that prejudice against gay people ran deep. Press coverage of the debacle no doubt inspired Muholi to make a documentary, Difficult Lives, which is part of this new exhibition, Inkanyiso. The documentary gave Muholi a chance to contextualise her work and challenge her critics. It is pitched at the man/woman in the street, and its educational nature makes it feel like a clumsy appendage in the Stevenson gallery. It is not a video artwork  and ultimately its circulation in more public contexts might have more impact than her photographs.

Muholi is not unaware of the power of film:  this exhibition includes a short video work in which a transgender man explains how he has been the target of abuse since he was a child because of his ambiguous status. Muholi probably wished to bring into focus that which was silenced in the photographs: the impact of repetitive abuse on an individual. Certainly, it is hard to believe that behind the beautiful female façade lurks a frightened and harassed person. In some ways the mask is part of his victory over his persecutors, though it also is a convincing camouflage.